Fresh Stormont talks to begin on December 16

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Fresh talks to revive devolved government in Northern Ireland will start on December 16, Julian Smith has said.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said, unless agreement is reached by January 13, fresh Assembly elections will be triggered.

"This one (deadline) is real, January 13 the law changes and an election has to be called in the absence of new legislation," he said.

"Each party had made a commitment to getting back into talks and I think that will happen whatever the situation the week after the election.

"We can't let this run and run, we have got to get this sorted.

"The number of issues is relatively small.

"There is a deal ready to go, my colleague (Irish deputy premier) Simon Coveney has been meeting with Sinn Fein and others this week.

"I have been continuing to meet with the parties in Northern Ireland.

"Let's see what the election result is, but in all circumstances every party needs to get back into serious discussions that week before Christmas."

Speaking at the Northern Ireland Conservatives' election manifesto launch at the Culloden Hotel in Co Down on Wednesday, Mr Smith acknowledged there are a number of issues to deal with.

But he said he does not believe the outstanding issues, including a demand for an Irish language act and calls to reform the petition of concern, were "insurmountable".

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O'Neill indicated willingness over the weekend to resume negotiations after next month's General Election.

"I think we are close to getting into position where we can get Stormont back up and running," Mr Smith said.

"These issues are important but what is really important are making sure that we deliver health services, that we deliver education and we deliver for people who are fed up of that institution not being up and running.

"I am confident with the best will, with a Christmas spirit, these parties can get this done."

He added that there is "no appetite" at Westminster for further legislation to extend the deadline to revive Stormont which has been collapsed for almost three years, since January 2017.

"The Prime Minister has been right behind these talks all along and will make a big push after this election," he said.

On Tuesday, Ulster Unionist leader Steve Aiken told Mr Smith in a meeting at Stormont House to "act now" over the region's "crisis-hit" health system and appoint a direct rule health minister to be installed immediately.

Mr Smyth ruled that out.

"I don't think taking powers back to London is the best way to proceed," he said.

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