'Significant progress' made on powersharing talks

Significant progress has been made on powersharing talks in Northern Ireland and a deal is "possible and achievable" on restoring devolution as a deadline looms, the British and Irish governments have said.

In a statement as the 4pm deadline for the talks looms, Secretary of State James Brokenshire and Dublin's Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney gave no indication that they would give the parties more time or that there would be a return to direct rule from London.

James Brokenshire

James Brokenshire

Mr Brokenshire said a number of issues remain outstanding.

"I believe a resolution can be found," he said.

"And I'm urging the parties to continue focusing all of their efforts on achieving this. The UK Government will work with the parties toward their critical objective of forming an executive.

"But I've made clear to party leaders that it is for them to reach agreement."

Mr Brokenshire added: "That prize remains achievable and remains my focus."

A scheduled meeting of the Stormont Assembly was earlier postponed amid intensive last-ditch negotiations to restore powersharing.

The Assembly had been due to convene at noon to begin nominating devolved ministers to a coalition government.

After a meeting of party whips, the start time was scrapped. It is understood the majority of the parties wanted to postpone the session until 2pm, but the DUP argued that the meeting should not proceed at all.

The whips are due to meet again at 1pm to make a final decision on the crucial sitting.

Mr Coveney said the last three days of talks were intensive and that he was encouraged by the discussions.

"There still remain gaps to be bridged on some key issues," he said.

"Like the Secretary of State I believe that an agreement is still within reach, an agreement that would allow a powersharing executive to be formed on a sustainable basis."

Mr Coveney said all parties are committed to the successful operations of all the political institutions in Belfast and everyone was convinced devolution was the best way to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

"With courage and goodwill this can be achieved and everybody here is continuing to focus on a positive outcome," he said.

If the 4pm deadline passes, Northern Ireland faces the prospect of some version of direct rule from Westminster or yet another snap Assembly election.

The key sticking point in the way of a deal has emerged as Sinn Fein's demands for an Irish Language Act, which would bestow official protection for Gaelic speakers.

The DUP is willing to legislate on the language issue, but only if Ulster Scots speakers are included in any Act, a condition Sinn Fein has rejected.

The institutions imploded in January when DUP leader Arlene Foster was forced from office after Sinn Fein's then deputy first minister, the late Martin McGuinness, quit in protest at the DUP's handling of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) - a scheme that left the administration facing a £490 million overspend.

His move triggered a snap Assembly election in March.

A number of attempts to restore powersharing between the five main parties following that poll floundered, with three UK Government deadlines for a deal having already been missed.

Prime Minister Theresa May's official spokesman said: "If, despite our collective efforts, it proves impossible to re-establish the executive, we will need to consider the options to ensure Northern Ireland has the political stability that it needs.

"In terms of what those options are, I wouldn't get into that at this stage."