There was a guarded sense of optimism at Stormont on Friday night that more than a year after the collapse of the powersharing institutions, the DUP and Sinn Féin are on the edge of a deal to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said after “a very intensive week of discussions” progress was made but there was more work to do. “I have set out the parameters for a deal. It must be fair and balanced,” she said.
“Our negotiating team will continue working next week. I want to see Ministerial led government restored to Northern Ireland. I hope that can be achieved by devolved government and will work towards that end,” added Ms Foster.
Ahead of some 2,000 Sinn Féin delegates assembling in Dublin on Saturday to formally elect Mary Lou McDonald as Gerry Adams’s successor as party president, well-placed talks sources said good progress was achieved after a week of high-level DUP-Sinn Féin negotiations at Stormont.
“It has to be said that the mood is much more positive,” said one senior source following a day of negotiations in which the outgoing and incoming Sinn Féin presidents, Mr Adams and Ms McDonald, were centrally involved.
At one stage there was some expectation that a deal might be struck on Friday night but DUP and Sinn Féin sources said “gaps” remained between the two parties, forcing the talks into next week.
A Sinn Féin spokesman said “progress” was made in the talks. “There are outstanding issues to be resolved,” he added. “Talks are continuing and should conclude next week.”
Mr Adams said on Friday night that the talks were not yet “sorted out”.
“We have made some progress but there are still considerable obstacles but as I said to our unionist friends, this is the last chance agreement,” he said.
“They need to embrace the need for rights for everybody and agree a space where we can all moderate our differences,” added Mr Adams.
Key issues still to be resolved are the Sinn Féin demand for a free-standing Irish language act and a DUP requirement that if it goes back into the Executive that the institutions will be sustainable and not susceptible to being easily crashed by Sinn Féin.
Sources surmised that while a deal was possible on Friday, some DUP politicians were reluctant to allow Mr Adams make his valedictory as party president, while telling Sinn Féin’s special ardfheis that not only had he helped broker an agreement but he had delivered on Sinn Féin’s Irish language demand.
There was also a DUP concern, according to sources, that if a deal was agreed on Friday either Sinn Féin triumphalism or some laudatory references to the IRA at the ardfheis could “spook” some DUP MPs and Assembly members.
Sources also said that both the DUP and Sinn Féin “needed to get their ducks lined up in a row” and that there were some members from both parties who would be antipathetic to agreeing a deal that could in any way be interpreted as compromising on previously asserted principles.
There is also a specific anxiety that were the DUP leader Arlene Foster to agree a deal some of the party’s MPs, such as Ian Paisley and Sammy Wilson, might attempt to sabotage such an agreement, thus jeopardising both the deal and Ms Foster’s leadership. This is an issue for the DUP to manage, said a source.
Despite a general political nervousness in sight of an agreement, the mood at Stormont on Friday remained positive. There is also the possibility that if a deal is on the cards for early next week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the British prime minister Theresa May would travel to Stormont to assist in the final stage of negotiations.
The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the Northern Secretary Karen Bradley held talks with the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance on Friday afternoon.
The DUP and Sinn Féin did not attend these talks, although there was an expectation that all-party discussions would be held with British and Irish government Ministers. This, according to an Ulster Unionist Party source, prompted party leader Robin Swann to complain, "The DUP and Sinn Féin are running the show and the two governments are just bystanders".
In turn, said the same source, Ms Bradley told the three parties she “felt their frustration” at being kept away from the central negotiations.
“We are not here for a counselling session but to get government back up and running,” replied Mr Swann.
The SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, after the three-party talks with Mr Coveney and Ms Bradley, said he made it “very clear to both governments that they shouldn’t bring us into a room to waste our time with no meaningful update or substance”.
“The truth is, this isn’t an all-party process. It is an exclusive two party process,” he said.