Varadkar and May say there is now a basis for a deal to reinstate power-sharing
SF said agreement is close while DUP indicated good progress had been made at talks
The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May have said they are hopeful of a deal to reinstate the Northern Executive and Assembly can be reached very soon.
Speaking in Belfast on Monday evening Mr Varadkar said he was hopeful the DUP and Sinn Féin can agree on resumption of power-sharing within days.
After a series of talks involving himself, Mrs May and the leaders of Sinn Féin and the DUP, Mr Varadkar said there was a “lot of work to do” but progress was going in the “right direction”.
Mrs May said “while differences remain, I think there is the basis of an agreement here” and she hoped that an executive could be “up and running very soon”.
She urged Northern Ireland’s political leaders to make “one final push” to restore the power-sharing executive.
Mrs May said the meetings with the various parties at Stormont had been “full and frank”.
She added: “It’s been 13 long months since we last saw devolved government here and I think we are now at the point where it’s time for the local elected representatives to find a way to work together and to deal with, to tackle, the many pressing issues facing Northern Ireland.
“I’ve had full and frank conversations with the five parties and I’ve also met with the Taoiseach”.
Mrs May and Mr Varadkar met Sinn Féin and DUP leaders on Monday.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said on Monday evening: “We believe we are close to an agreement.”
Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster said good progress has been made in the talks.
“Good progress has been made and we will continue to work towards more progress. It is about finding an accommodation that recognises the need to respect all languages and all cultures in Northern Ireland and not allow one to dominate over another,” she said.
She later added: “There isn’t a deal yet but there is very good progress and we will keep at it and continue to work on that progress.”
The DUP leader said her party wanted to achieve a deal which was “good for everyone” and that was “sustainable” in the future. She described the tone of the talks as “very good”.
Mr Varadkar arrived at Stormont House around noon with Ms May’s entourage driving into the estate soon after having earlier met management and workers at the Bombardier aerospace plant in east Belfast.
The general mood at Stormont on Monday remained optimistic although there was some nervousness that the progress made could unravel before the DUP and Sinn Féin are able to sign off on an agreement.
The main stumbling block to a deal has been the diametrically opposing positions the DUP and Sinn Féin have taken on the Irish language. Sinn Féin has demanded a stand-alone Irish language act while the DUP has insisted there will be no such free-standing legislation.
Sources said the two parties have devised a complicated compromise or “fudge” that would allow the Irish language, Ulster Scots and wider cultural matters to be embraced in three separate bills but possibly ultimately all merging under one broad act.
In terms of efforts to introduce same sex legislation to Northern Ireland the DUP with 28 Assembly members does not have the necessary 30 MLAs to cite a petition of concern to block any such legislation in the Assembly.
Dealing with same sex marriage may involve some form of understanding that the DUP will not actively seek to block the legislation. This could prove difficult for some of its MLAs.
It is also understood that Sinn Féin will quietly abandon its previous demand that Arlene Foster must step aside as First Minister pending the outcome of the investigation into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme fiasco.
On dealing with the past it is understood that previous proposals such as creating an Historical Investigations Unit to inquire into Troubles-related killing and a separate Independent Commission on Information Retrieval also would be part of any deal.
The new Northern Secretary Karen Bradley is due to publish a consultative paper on the past shortly.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting a spokesman for Mr Varadkar said he would “use his visit to encourage the parties to reach an agreement so that functioning institutions can commence work again in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland”.
A spokesman for Ms May said she would “remind the parties of the many pressing issues facing Northern Ireland and restate her strong belief that a fully functioning Executive, empowered to take decisions over local matters, is the best way to serve the interests of the whole community”.
If the deal is confirmed this week it could take towards the end of the month before the Executive and Assembly are reinstated as legislation to restore Stormont first must be passed at Westminster which is in recess until Tuesday week, February 20th.