Arlene Foster says there has been “good progress” towards restoring devolved government at Stormont, but “there isn’t a deal yet”.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader was speaking after a series of meetings in Belfast aimed at agreeing a power-sharing deal after more than a year of deadlock.
Stressing that her party wanted a deal that was “good for everyone” and “sustainable” in the long-term, Ms Foster said: “Good progress has been made and we will continue to work towards more progress.
“It is about finding an accommodation that recognises the need to respect all languages and all cultures in Northern Ireland and not allow one to dominate over another.”
Ms Foster, who described the tone of the discussions as “very good”, added: “There isn’t a deal yet but there is very good progress and we will keep at it and continue to work on that progress.”
Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish PM Leo Varadkar were involved in the discussions, with their presence raising speculation that an agreement could be imminent.
Ms Foster said an accord was close, a sentiment echoed by Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald.
“We believe that we are close to an agreement which, certainly, we can put to our grassroots and to the community as a whole,” Ms McDonald said.
She acknowledged “we are not exactly there just yet”, but “there is nothing insurmountable if there is the political will to reach an agreement”.
Ms McDonald said there were no direct talks between her party and the DUP on Monday, adding: “Clearly we need to meet, clearly we need to resolve the outstanding issues.”
It is 13 months since Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed, after Ms Foster refused to stand down as First Minister over a botched renewable energy scheme.
Sinn Fein has been steadfast in its refusal to resume power-sharing without a commitment to introduce both an Irish Language Act and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland.
Last month, the new Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley told the parties time was short but “one last opportunity to reach agreement” remained.
Without an agreement on devolved government soon, Northern Ireland faces the very real prospect of a return to direct rule from Westminster for the first time in a decade.