Talks to restore Stormont powersharing are set to enter an intensified phase of face-to-face negotiations between party leaders, the UK and Irish governments have indicated.
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said they will recommend to Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that a new setpiece process gets under way at Stormont next week.
The move comes after the latest roundtable meeting of the governments and five main parties at Stormont House in Belfast.
Mrs Bradley said: “I’ll be recommending that we now move into a very intensive period of talks at leadership level to make sure that we can address the issues that remain.
“I am positive that there is the right attitude and there is the right will there, but I think it would be wrong for me to do anything other than to be clear that there are still significant challenges that still remain.
“We will continue to work to deliver what the people of Northern Ireland rightly want and deserve and need, which is government in Stormont.”
Tanaiste Simon Coveney said there was “momentum” in the talks process.
“Certainly my recommendation to the Taoiseach will be that we should now intensify the discussions, make them much more direct and much more political for the next couple of weeks in an effort to try to turn what has been a good process into a series of decisions that can get a basis for the re-establishment of an executive – that’s ultimately what we are about,” he said.
“I think all the parties are up for that and I think certainly that was the indication today and there was some good blunt discussion, I think, around that because there needs to be an appetite here within the parties to make this work, because it’s going to involve compromise and it’s going to involve accommodation with each other.”
Mr Coveney said there were “awkward issues” to resolve.
“But they are not insurmountable,” he added.
“And when you consider some of the other issues that Northern Ireland faces and some of the decisions that are being taken that will impact directly on Northern Ireland in the autumn I think people need to get into perspective why it’s important that we have devolved institutions and Northern Ireland making decisions for itself as we move through the summer into a very unpredictable political period for British and Irish politics. This is important and I think the stakes are high.”
Stormont has been in cold storage for over two and half years due to a bitter standoff between Sinn Fein and its erstwhile partner in government, the DUP, on issues such as Irish language legislation and the region’s ban on same sex marriage.
The format of the most recent 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 were then meeting with the two governments on a weekly basis to review progress.
If Mrs May and Mr Varadkar accept the recommendations as laid out by Mrs Bradley and Mr Coveney, the process will step up a gear from next week, with engagement concentrated on leadership level.