Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists are hammering out details of a potential deal that could end Stormont’s 13 month powersharing crisis.
Northern Ireland’s two main parties were locked in negotiations through Friday, scrubbing a scheduled round table meeting with the region’s smaller parties, amid mounting speculation an agreement may be in sight.
On Friday evening, Sinn Fein and the DUP acknowledged progress had been made toward a breakthrough but insisted issues remained. Both parties said the talks process should conclude next week.
Party president Gerry Adams, who will step down from his leadership role on Saturday, said: “It isn’t sorted out as we speak. 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.”
Arlene Foster added: “We have had a very intensive week of discussions. 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.”
Stormont’s five main parties had been due to meet for round table discussions with Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Ireland’s deputy premier Simon Coveney at Parliament Buildings in Belfast on Friday afternoon.
The DUP and Sinn Fein did not attend, with Mrs Bradley telling the other participants the meeting would not proceed as planned because the main parties were involved in intense exchanges elsewhere in the building.
The episode has fuelled expectation of a possible breakthrough.
The parties are working to end an impasse that has left Northern Ireland without a properly functioning devolved executive for more than a year.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded last January amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.
That rift subsequently widened to take in long-running disputes over culture, social issues and legacy.
The main sticking point preventing the restoration of an executive is the Irish language.
Sinn Fein want a stand-alone piece of legislation to protect speakers – an Irish Language Act – but the DUP has long insisted it would only countenance new laws if they also incorporate other cultures, such as Ulster Scots.
Finding a compromise resolution to the thorny language dispute that will satisfy both parties is key to unlocking the Stormont deadlock.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said it was clear the negotiations were an “exclusive two-party process”, adding: “The SDLP are not here to window dress but we want to be constructive.
“I’ve told both governments when the two-party process is concluded and they are ready to engage in five-party negotiations, the SDLP will be ready to negotiate.
“With a hard Brexit coming down the tracks that will cause economic, social and political chaos to our island, I also stressed to the Irish and British governments the need for the formation of a government urgently.
“Everyone across these islands is talking about the threat of a hard border, yet here we have a political vacuum.”
A Ulster Unionist Party source said: “Sinn Fein and the DUP are clearly running these talks and the two governments are just bystanders.”
Substantive negotiations between the two main parties are unlikely to continue through the weekend as Sinn Fein is holding a special party conference in Dublin on Saturday to formally select Mary Lou McDonald as Mr Adams’ successor as president.
The DUP is also traditionally averse to doing business on Sunday.