Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists remained locked in negotiations to salvage powersharing on Friday evening after a scheduled all-party meeting was scrapped at short notice.
Stormont’s three smaller parties – the Ulster Unionists, SDLP and Alliance – attended the afternoon talks session in Parliament Buildings and were told by the UK and Irish governments it would not proceed as planned because the DUP and Sinn Fein leaderships were involved in intense exchanges elsewhere in the building.
The episode has fuelled already mounting speculation that the two largest parties have made progress in their efforts to strike a deal that would end the impasse that has left Northern Ireland without a properly functioning devolved executive for more than a year.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led coalition imploded last January amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.
That rift subsequently widened to take in long-running disputes over culture, social issues and legacy.
The main sticking point preventing the restoration of an executive is the Irish language. Sinn Fein want a stand-alone piece of legislation to protect speakers – an Irish Language Act – but the DUP has long insisted it would only countenance new laws if they also incorporate other cultures, such as Ulster Scots.
Secretary of State Karen Bradley and Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney spoke with the three smaller parties at the truncated meeting on Friday afternoon.
According to sources, Mrs Bradley said she understood they were frustrated with the turn of events, to which UUP leader Robin Swann apparently replied he was not there for a “counselling session”.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is understood to have told Mrs Bradley she had his number and to give him a call when she intended on having “inclusive” talks.
A UUP source said: ”Sinn Fein and the DUP are clearly running these talks and the two governments are just bystanders”.
Substantive negotiations between the two main parties are unlikely to continue through the weekend as Sinn Fein is holding a special party conference in Dublin on Saturday to formally select Mary Lou McDonald as Gerry Adams’ successor as president.
The DUP is also traditionally averse to doing business on Sunday.