UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Friday hailed "positive" talks on potential changes to Northern Ireland's post-Brexit trading rules, but said there was "more work to do" before reaching agreement with the EU.
The protocol on post-Brexit trading rules, signed between London and Brussels, keeps Northern Ireland in the European single market and customs union and stipulates checks on goods moving from the rest of the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland.
That has proved deeply unpopular with the UK-run province's unionist politicians, causing months of political deadlock.
London and Brussels have been negotiating for months to try to ease tensions over the trade arrangements, and Sunak visited Belfast on Friday to talk to local politicians, fuelling hopes that a breakthrough was imminent.
"I had positive conversations with political parties in Northern Ireland, about our ongoing discussions to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol," Sunak told British broadcasters.
"Now there's more work to do, and that's why my ministerial colleagues and I will continue talking to the European Union intensely to find solutions," he added.
Shortly before Sunak's comments, Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he believed an agreement was close.
"I'm quietly confident that within the next week or two we could be in a position to sign off an agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom," he told Irish broadcaster RTE.
- 'Game on': Sinn Fein -
Sunak arrived in Belfast on Thursday and held brief individual meetings Friday with leaders of the main Stormont parties, ending with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
He was trying to persuade the parties to back changes to the trading conditions agreed with Brussels.
Emerging from the meetings, politicians were cautiously optimistic.
"Clearly this is a big moment," Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP told journalists.
"I think that progress has been made across a range of issues and we welcome that. But I think there are still some areas where final agreement with the EU is still outstanding."
Donaldson added: "We've not yet seen the final text of an agreement."
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald gave an upbeat assessment. "It's very much game on," she said.
Her party is in favour of the protocol to prevent a hard border in Ireland.
The Daily Telegraph reported multiple UK sources as saying that Sunak is expected to brief his government and announce the deal in parliament Tuesday.
-'Distance to go' -
Sunak is set to meet European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen at a conference in Munich over the weekend "raising hopes of an imminent deal", the Guardian reported.
Foreign minister James Cleverly said he had a "constructive meeting" on Friday with the EU pointman on the issue, Maros Sefcovic, in Brussels.
Irish deputy premier Micheal Martin has said that he believes there is a "distance to go yet" on reaching a deal, however.
The DUP wants the deal overhauled or scrapped entirely, arguing it casts the province adrift from the rest of the UK and makes a united Ireland more likely.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson told the BBC Friday that the deal had to remove the automatic application of EU law to Northern Ireland, arguing that the province had been "abandoned to the EU".
The DUP walked out of Stormont in February 2022, mainly in protest at the protocol, causing political paralysis.
Britain this month said it would push back the deadline for Northern Ireland's parties to form a government for a year to 18 January 2024 but reserved the right to call an election at any time in the intervening period.