By David Young
The UK Government will not allow political talks to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland to drift past Easter, Secretary of State James Brokenshire has warned.
Mr Brokenshire said he would make a call on the state of negotiations over the Easter weekend - in ten days' time - to enable him to move legislation in Westminster once MPs return from recess on April 18.
His comments, made during a visit to Antrim Area Hospital, effectively make Good Friday the deadline for the region's rowing parties to reach consensus - a timeline that is sure to prompt comparisons with the tense negotiations ahead of the historic Good Friday peace agreement of 1998.
Whatever the outcome of the talks, Mr Brokenshire will need to table legislation in the Commons - either to restore a devolved executive or, in lieu of a deal, to pass laws to deliver a measure of financial stability to Northern Ireland's rudderless public services.
"I need to make decisions over the Easter period to bring legislation forward at Westminster," he said. "That is the timeline I am working to.
"It is that Easter focus that I have on needing for me to take decisions and therefore to introduce legislation there afterwards so that we can get on with the job, get an executive back in place and, equally for me, if we don't see that, to start to make decisions about what further contingencies may need to be put into place."
Mr Brokenshire again made clear the reintroduction of direct rule from London would be considered if the parties fail to strike a deal.
On Wednesday, Sinn Fein gave a bleak assessment of where the talks stood, claiming there had been no progress in the first three days of negotiations.
The Democratic Unionists hit back, accusing the republican party of peddling "doom and gloom" and questioning whether it was actually committed to the restoration of devolution.
The two main parties are taking part in discussions along with Stormont's other three main parties - the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance Party - and the UK and Irish governments.
Mr Brokenshire instigated the fresh talks after last month's negotiations to form a new powersharing administration ended in failure.
Parties missed a deadline to get a government up and running within three weeks of March's snap Assembly election.
Devolution crashed in January over a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The subsequent election campaign laid bare a series of other disputes dividing the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Two of the main stumbling blocks are the contentious issues of Irish language protections and how to deal with the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Mr Brokenshire said progress had been made on some important issues, but he conceded: "There are some key issues that do remain outstanding, therefore if we are to get the resolution that we need I think we need that sense of compromise and that sense of the bigger picture.
"I am here at a hospital underlining the public services that are looking for certainty, looking for an executive being in place to be able to make decisions.
"We know this cannot carry on for an extended period of time because of the impact on public services like the one I have been seeing today."