Prime Minister Theresa May has said there needs to be “one final push” to get a deal on devolution over the line.
The Belfast Telegraph was one of four news outlets invited to a meeting with Mrs May yesterday after a day of intensive talks with the leaders of the five main parties.
Mrs May said she was “urging them to make one final push for the people of Northern Ireland, because it’s been 13 long months since we’ve had devolved government here”.
Speaking inside Stormont House, the Prime Minister said she knew differences remained but believed the “basis of an agreement” had been achieved.
“It should be possible to have an Executive up and running in Northern Ireland very soon,” she added.
“What I’m very clear about is we’re all fully committed to supporting the process.
“And certainly, from the Westminster point of view, we’re ready to put through legislation to re-establish the Executive as soon as possible after an agreement.”
Asked if she felt an increased level of optimism after meeting the parties, Mrs May said: “The DUP and Sinn Fein have been working hard to close the remaining gaps.”
She added: “I think it’s time – we’re at a point where the locally elected representatives need to find a way to work together to deal with the many pressing issues facing the people of Northern Ireland.”
And on the issue of nervousness among unionists about Sinn Fein’s power to bring the process to a halt for more than a year, Mrs May said: “Both sides – the DUP and Sinn Fein – have been working hard over the last 13 months.
“We have seen a coming together, a recognition that we all want to see an Executive reformed here in Northern Ireland.
“I think that’s the best solution for the people here.
“Differences do remain.
“We’ve seen a lot of hard work to close the gaps, but there is the basis of an agreement.
“It is important, obviously, to move forward and ensure the stability of the Executive.”
As regards Brexit, the Prime Minister said, like Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, she was “committed to no hard border” in Ireland and that the high-profile agreement made in December “still stands”.
She added: “Our preference for dealing with that is to do it within the context of the overall UK-EU partnership of the future – that’s what we’re going to be working at.”
In a later Press conference the Prime Minister did not confirm whether or not she would return to Belfast as the Stormont talks continue.