The DUP and Sinn Fein agreed last night that progress has been made towards restoring power-sharing as talks between the two largest parties continued into the evening.
Amid speculation that an agreement could be achieved as early as next week, the BBC reported that Prime Minister Theresa May is readying herself to fly in to Northern Ireland to see the process across the line.
One observer noted: “The engagement between the DUP and Sinn Fein seems different at this time. The body language is different. It appears to reflect the fact that they are reaching an understanding.”
After talks broke up around 8pm, DUP leader Arlene Foster issued a positive statement.
“We have had a very intensive week of discussions,” she said. “Progress has been made. We have more work to do.
“I have set out the parameters for a deal. It must be fair and balanced.
“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.”
Sinn Fein echoed her comments, envisioning an end to the process “next week”.
“Progress has been made in the talks but there are outstanding issues to be resolved, talks are continuing and should conclude next week,” a spokesman said.
Last night outgoing Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams also acknowledged progress had been made but insisted issues remained.
“It isn’t sorted out as we speak,” he said. “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.
“They need to embrace the need for rights for everybody and agree a space where we can all moderate our differences.”
The previous power-sharing assembly was pulled down by Sinn Fein in January 2017, ostensibly over the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. Since then Sinn Fein has at various times insisted that the DUP give way on an Irish language act, same sex marriage and legacy issues before they will return to government.
An Irish language Act in particular appears to have taken on major symbolic significance for republicans, while the DUP has at times hinted it may consider a hybrid act including Ulster-Scots culture.
However once source close to the talks suggested that there might be some distance between the DUP talks team and the party’s MPs on any deal.
Talks are unlikely to continue through the weekend as Sinn Fein is installing new president Mary Lou McDonald in Dublin and the DUP traditionally avoids doing business on Sundays.