Talks aimed at restoring Northern Ireland's devolved government are to resume at Stormont on Thursday with less than two weeks for the parties to reach a deal or face fresh Assembly elections.
Each of Northern Ireland's five main parties will participate in bilateral discussions with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Julian Smith and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.
Mr Coveney travelled to Belfast on Wednesday for a meeting with Mr Smith ahead of the resumption of formal discussions. He also held informal meetings with several of the North's political parties. Mr Coveney said on social media that this year could be "a new beginning for politics in NI with leadership and generosity from all sides".
In a New Year's Day video posted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Mr Coveney said that "we are determined to work with all of the parties in Northern Ireland to get the devolved government back up and running again, to get the institutions of the Good Friday agreement functioning again, to bring communities together and to ensure that Northern Ireland can make decisions for itself".
Northern Ireland has been without a powersharing government at Stormont since January 2017, when the Assembly collapsed following a controversy over a botched renewable heating scheme.
The legislation which gives civil servants the power to keep Northern Ireland running in the absence of a devolved government expires on January 13th. Mr Smith has said the parties must reach a deal by then or he will call an election.
The latest round of talks on restoring Stormont ended without agreement before Christmas, with both Mr Coveney and Mr Smith blaming the DUP for scuppering the chances of a deal, a charge the DUP “flatly rejected”.
What are the stumbling blocks?
The outstanding issues are said by all parties to be “on the margins”, and relate to matters such as an Irish language Act, the sustainability of any reformed Stormont, and reform of the petition of concern – a vetoing system that allows parties which have 30 signatures to block motions even if these motions have majority support.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said that as the talks recommence "we will be there and stand ready to restore devolution through a fair and balanced deal. A Northern Ireland that is going to keeping moving forward must be one where everyone feels at home, but must also be one where no one feels their culture is being marginalised."
Over the Christmas period each of the parties has spoken of their determination to see agreement reached and Stormont restored.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the outstanding issues could be resolved and “the choice is now for agreement, or elections. But the current situation cannot continue.”
In his homily on New Year's Day, Bishop of Down and Connor Noel Treanor said: "We await and expect in the coming days what Pope Francis's message describes as a renewal of political will, so that new ways can be found to reconcile and unite individuals and communities."