Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has insisted that talks with the DUP over the trade border impasse are making progress, but has refused to put a timeline on the restoration of Stormont.
Mr Heaton-Harris, who was part of a UK Government delegation which attended a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin, said the negotiations were in their “final, final stages”.
Tanaiste Micheal Martin said fiscal challenges for Northern Ireland are growing and a restored Assembly is needed to tackle them.
The DUP has been blocking powersharing at Stormont for more than a year and a half in protest at the internal UK trade barriers created by Brexit’s Northern Ireland Protocol.
The party has been involved in negotiations with the Government about the Windsor Framework, which reformed the protocol, and is seeking further assurances, by way of legislation, over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
Speculation has been growing in recent weeks that the DUP could be closing in on an agreement with the Government which could restore the Assembly at Stormont.
The powersharing institutions in Northern Ireland cannot function without the involvement of the largest unionist party.
During the conference, ministers from the two governments discussed progress in the talks and agreed that the institutions need to be restored on a sustainable basis.
Speaking to the media afterwards, Mr Heaton-Harris was asked repeatedly if there was a timeline for a deal which would pave the way for a return of Stormont.
He said: “On the timeline, I don’t give a timeline.
“I’ve learnt in my time as Northern Ireland Secretary, don’t give timelines, don’t give deadlines, just get on with the job.”
He added: “We are all working very hard to make sure Stormont is back as soon as possible but I am not going to set a timeline to it.
“We are in the final stages. I could go further and say we are in the final, final stages of this. We are really working hard to try and close this down.
“I believe there is an ever diminishing number of questions we have to answer from the DUP. I do see progress in this space.
“I am very keen when we get the Executive back that it is a sustainable Executive that lasts the course. I think that’s imperative for all the people of Northern Ireland.”
The Northern Ireland Secretary continued: “I wish I’d reached a deal with (DUP leader) Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, we are not at that point yet, we are still clarifying points.”
Mr Martin said it was “extremely important” that the powersharing institutions were restored.
He said: “I think the people of Northern Ireland deserve that.
“I have long said that once an election is held in any democracy the natural consequence is the formation of a parliament or an assembly in this case and a government and an executive.
“The absence of the institutions damage politics, damage democracy.”
“The challenges for Northern Ireland in fiscal terms, in budgetary terms and in health are growing, the situation requires an Executive and an Assembly and I would hope that sooner rather than later we could get the institutions back.”