Sinn Féin 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 Féin 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 the North without a properly functioning devolved executive for more than a year.
The last DUP/Sinn Féin-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 Féin 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.
Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Secretary of State Karen Bradley 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 Féin 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 Féin 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.
Later, Mr Eastwood said it was clear the negotiations were an “exclusive two-party process”.
“The SDLP are not here to window dress but we want to be constructive,” he said.
“I’ve told both governments when the two-party process is concluded and they are ready to engage in five-party negotiations, the SDLP will be ready to negotiate.
“With a hard Brexit coming down the tracks that will cause economic, social and political chaos to our island, I also stressed to the Irish and British governments the need for the formation of a government urgently. Everyone across these islands is talking about the threat of a hard border, yet here we have a political vacuum.”