Talks to find a resolution between Sinn Féin and the DUP continued at Stormont on Wednesday night as the British and Irish governments sought to complete the text of an agreement to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly.
While the two governments still hope to be in a position this week to publish their best estimate of what would constitute a “fair and balanced” deal to reinstate Stormont, sources said a number of areas of disagreement remain to be sorted.
The main focus on Wednesday night was on the attempt by Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Northern Secretary Julian Smith to persuade the DUP and Sinn Féin to sign up to an agreement document.
Around 7pm on Wednesday, negotiators from the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance were advised to go home and return to the negotiations on Thursday while Mr Coveney and Mr Smith continued their discussions with the DUP and Sinn Féin.
Despite the failure to achieve a breakthrough on Wednesday, Mr Coveney and Mr Smith still believed that a deal can be done that is acceptable to the parties.
Sources said the key issues preventing an agreement revolve around the Irish language, ensuring the sustainability of any restored Executive and Assembly and proposed amendments to the petition of concern – the mechanism that allows motions to be vetoed even if they have majority support in the Assembly.
The parties are also demanding a major cash injection to deal with matters such as the long-running heath crisis and underfunding of public services.
Dublin and London sources said Mr Coveney and Mr Smith “will be working intensively late into the night again” at Stormont House.
‘No major drama’
Sources downplayed suggestions or speculation that the talks were in crisis. “There is genuinely no major drama but the slog is really, really slow here and everything is taking longer to conclude,” said one senior insider.
He added that the talks would run past midnight and into the morning, and negotiations with all five parties would resume on Thursday.
The North’s parties have only days to reach a deal if they are to meet Monday’s deadline set by Mr Smith. He said he will call fresh Assembly elections if there is no agreement.
Wednesday’s negotiations were taking place against the backdrop of a further strike by nurses. About 9,000 members of the Royal College of Nursing walked out for 12 hours on Wednesday in a protest over pay and staffing levels, leading to the cancellation of 2,000 appointments. Further strikes are planned for Friday.
British prime minister Boris Johnson urged the North’s politicians to reach a deal that would restore the Assembly. Speaking in the House of Commons, he said they should “take responsibility” and get the institutions up and running again.
The North’s power-sharing government collapsed three years ago following a scandal over a renewable heating scheme, which led to the resignation of the late Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. There have been several attempts over the past three years to restore Stormont, but all have failed.