By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland's foreign minister said on Wednesday he hoped that talks to restore Northern Ireland's power-sharing government could reach a successful outcome by the end of the week after some further steps by the negotiating parties.
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved administration since its collapse in January, raising the prospect of direct rule being reimposed from London, potentially destabilizing a delicate political balance in the British province.
"This week is an important week in the context of Northern Ireland and I hope we will have a successful outcome by the end of the week," Simon Coveney, Dublin's representative in the talks, told Ireland's upper house of parliament.
Coveney said the parties were making progress but they still had some difficulties to overcome.
The main impediment in the talks between Irish nationalists Sinn Fein and the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is disagreement over the rights of Irish language speakers.
The prospect of Britain's exit from the European Union in 2019 has added extra urgency to the talks in Northern Ireland.
Coveney warned London it would be impossible to avoid some form of hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland if Britain does not maintain a customs partnership with the EU.
"Direct rule (from London) would in my view be devastating for Northern Ireland, not just in the context of Brexit but in the context of community relations and the capacity to really find pragmatic and practical ways of reconciliation," he said.
The restoration of the administration would give Northern Ireland a greater say in Brexit negotiations that are set to have a bigger impact on the province than on any other part of the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland will be the UK's only land frontier with the EU after its departure and Dublin has proposed that Britain reach a bespoke customs union partnership with the bloc to eliminate the risk of a hard border returning to the island.
The border issue is particularly sensitive given the decades of violence over whether Northern Ireland should be part of the United Kingdom or Ireland. Around 3,600 people were killed before a 1998 peace agreement.
"I find it very difficult to see how we can solve the border issues on the island of Ireland unless Britain, Ireland and the rest of the European Union are part of a shared customs union, you can call it whatever you want," Coveney said.
"There is simply no way of avoiding some border infrastructure if you are having to manage the movement of goods from one customs union to another."
While Britain insists it will leave the EU's customs union, Coveney said the language around the issue has improved, citing a British proposal for a "new customs partnership" post-Brexit.
"I do think the British government is exploring ways in which we can try to discuss these things," he said.
(Reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by Gareth Jones)