Prime Minister and Taoiseach in Stormont bid to break powersharing deadlock

The Prime Minister and Taoiseach are set for crunch talks with Northern Ireland's political leaders amid growing speculation that a deal to restore powersharing could be close.

Theresa May and Leo Varadkar are travelling to Stormont in a joint push to help end the 13-month political stalemate.

Both leaders are due to hold a series of meetings at Stormont House to encourage Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists to resolve their differences.

Ulster Assembly election 2017
Ulster Assembly election 2017

While both parties have acknowledged that progress had been made, a DUP source has played down expectations of a deal being finalised on Monday, suggesting to the Press Association that if an agreement does materialise it is more likely later in the week.

In a clear sign that the dynamic at Stormont has shifted gears, the Taoiseach has cancelled a scheduled meeting with Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones in Dublin on Monday in order to head to Belfast.

Downing Street said Mrs May will tell the parties that her Government is ready to introduce legislation to enable the re-establishment of a devolved Executive as soon as possible, if an agreement is struck.

Ahead of the meetings at Stormont, the Prime Minister will visit a local business to meet staff and management.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government since January 2017 and several rounds of talks to resolve the crisis have failed.

However, speculation has been growing that a deal between Sinn Fein and the DUP is imminent.

Powersharing talks
Powersharing talks

On Saturday, Sinn Fein's Stormont leader, Michelle O'Neill, said talks are likely to draw to a close this week.

The 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 wants a standalone 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.

There was speculation over the weekend that three pieces of legislation - an Irish Language Act, an Ulster Scots Act and a broader Culture Act - could be a means to satisfy both sides.

Stormont powersharing talks
Stormont powersharing talks

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has warned that any deal to restore powersharing must end the cycle of political stand-off between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

He said it is not enough to simply form a new Executive.

"The real change necessary is an end to the cycle of two parties who have proved themselves very good at the art of political stand-off, but very bad at the responsibility of government," he said.

"That is the joint DUP/Sinn Fein status quo that must now end."

Mr Eastwood added that when powersharing is restored, focus must return immediately to the threat posed by Brexit, the economy and the crises in the health service and school budgets.