The Northern Secretary Julian Smith has announced new talks aimed at restoring Stormont will begin just four days after the Westminster general election on December 12th.
Mr Smith said fresh negotiations involving the British and Irish governments and the North’s five main parties will start on Monday December 16th.
“Each party has made a commitment to getting back into talks and I think that will happen whatever the situation the week after the election.”
“We can’t let this run and run, we have got to get this sorted,” he said, adding that the number of issues to be resolved to bring back powersharing was “relatively small”.
Mr Smith also repeated that Assembly elections must be called if no deal is done by January 13th. The legislation that allows civil servants in Northern Ireland take political decisions in the absence of Northern Executive Ministers comes to an end on that date.
Referring to the deadline, Mr Smith said: "This one is real. January 13th the law changes and an election has to be called in the absence of new legislation". Mr Smith made his comments at the Northern Ireland Conservatives manifesto launch which was held in the Culloden Hotel on the outskirts of east Belfast on Wednesday. Tory chairman James Cleverly also attended the launch. The Conservatives are standing four candidates in the North.
Mr Smith, who has held a number of recent meetings with Northern Ireland party leaders to sound out talks prospects, said the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Tánaiste Simon Coveney also was anxious to resume negotiations.
Whether talks will resume, and whether the Conservatives and Mr Smith are involved, will hinge on the results of the general election on December 12th.
One of the key blocks to a deal has been the failure to agree an Irish language act for Northern Ireland.
“There is a deal raring to go. My colleague Simon Coveney has been meeting with Sinn Féin and others this week. I have been continuing to meet with the parties in Northern Ireland,” Mr Smith said.
“Let’s see what the election result is, but in all circumstances every party needs to get back into serious discussions that week before Christmas.”
“I think we are close to getting into position where we can get Stormont back up and running,” he added.
“These issues are important but what is really important are making sure that we deliver health services, that we deliver education and we deliver for people who are fed up of that institution not being up and running. I am confident with the best will, with a Christmas spirit, these parties can get this done.”
Stormont has been mothballed for close to three years. Mr Smith said there was “no appetite” to extend the January 13th deadline in order to avoid Assembly elections.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was not acceptable that “ Northern Ireland has not had a ministerial led government for over 1,000 days”.
“It is the DUP that is seeking a mandate to turn up, a mandate to work and a mandate to get Northern Ireland moving again,” she said.
Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said her party stood “ready and committed” to restoring the Assembly and to achieving a “fair agreement”.
But any restoration must ensure the Assembly is “sustainable, credible and has the confidence of the public,” she said. – Additional reporting PA.