Talks to restore powersharing at Stormont are to intensify over the next two weeks, Ireland’s deputy premier has said.
Simon Coveney said cross-party working groups examining the disputes at the heart of the impasse would ramp up exchanges ahead of a stocktaking review by the two governments at the end of May.
Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are due to discuss progress in the talks at that juncture and decide whether there is a basis upon which to resurrect the institutions.
The format of the latest bid to revive Stormont has seen serving and retired senior civil servants chair several working groups focusing on the main sticking points.
The leaders of the main political parties are also meeting with the two governments on a weekly basis to review progress.
After the latest roundtable review meeting in Belfast, Mr Coveney said: “I think you will see an intensification now of efforts from the leaders within the working groups to try to move toward consensus in the areas where that is possible, and if there are areas where it is not possible, they will outline why.
“Certainly you will see the leaders within those working groups intensifying their efforts and trying to actually push from discussion and accommodation to agreement where they can.”
Following the meeting, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley praised the attitudes of the five main parties engaged in the process.
“I want to pay tribute to the parties and the leader, who all have shown the right attitude and the right determination that they want to see Stormont resolved,” she said.
“There are difficult issues, there are difficult things that will need to be addressed but I am pleased by the progress we are making and the attitude and approach of all party leaders.”
Ahead of the meeting in the Stormont Hotel, the governments had facilitated an informal lunch engagement with representatives from civic society and the business community.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, the region’s ban on same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Mr Coveney said if a basis for agreement was identified at the end of May, Mrs May and Mr Varadkar would discuss how to move the talks process forward.
“I suspect it will be a more political and direct approach after that if there is a basis for finding an agreement, which I hope there will be,” he said.
Asked whether an independent mediator could enter the process, Mr Coveney said he did not think that would happen.
“We are trying to get this process done quickly. The idea that we would introduce an outsider now, albeit a very well-meaning and potentially very experienced outsider, I don’t think is consistent with trying to get this done quickly because it would take time to get to know that person to build the relationships, and so on,” he said.
Mr Coveney also acknowledged that events at Westminster at the start of June, when a departing Mrs May would again try to get her Brexit deal passed by Parliament, could prove a distraction for the Stormont process.
“It doesn’t take a genius to see that there will be other pressures in Westminster in the first and second week in June when we are also trying to conclude things here,” he added.