Talks to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland have reached a very sensitive stage, the Taoiseach has said.

Leo Varadkar highlighted the delicate nature of the last-ditch negotiations to save Stormont as he declined to be drawn on a Dáil question on Irish unity.

Mr Varadkar, who in December spoke of his aspiration to see a united Ireland, told TDs he did not want to say anything that might cause offence to anyone at such a crucial juncture in the process in Belfast.

After yesterday's first round table exchange between the five Stormont parties and Irish and British governments, the talks returned to a bilateral format.

"There are talks under way in Stormont at present, as we speak Minister (Simon) Coveney is in Belfast representing the Government and those talks are at a very sensitive stage so I think today is not the day to be asserting our unionism or nationalism," Mr Varadkar told the Dáil.

"I don't think there would be any good purpose being served in giving anyone any cause to take offence.

"So, I think that's all I'll say for today, but I know Minister Coveney is working very hard today in Belfast trying to help the parties, particularly the two largest parties come to a compromise so that the Executive and Assembly can be up and running again."

Northern Secretary Karen Bradley is due to update the House of Commons on the developments tomorrow, ahead of the next round table session at Stormont on Thursday.

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning administration for over a year after the last DUP/Sinn Féin-led coalition imploded in a row over a botched green energy scheme.

That rift subsequently widened to take in long-running disputes over culture, social issues and legacy.

Civil servants have been running Stormont's public services during the impasse. However they are hamstrung by their inability to take major policy decisions.

With the pressing need for budget to be struck for the next financial year, if the latest talks bid fails, the UK government will face mounting pressure to introduce a form of Westminster direct rule to provide financial certainty.

The Alliance Party said Mrs Bradley needed to provide clarity on the budget situation urgently.

Deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "We are facing an ever-growing financial crisis, with major implications for public services and the economy. Regrettably, this reality is a secondary concern to the issues at the heart of the deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Fein, preventing the restoration of devolution.

"Every day that goes by means less time for departments and agencies to plan ahead. With scarce resources available, it is important every opportunity to spend what is available efficiently and effectively is taken.

"If there are no swift decisions, more and more resources will in effect be wasted, and in the community and voluntary sector that provides many services on behalf of government, staff will inevitably be placed on protective notice.

"There is some complacency about us stumbling along and catching up with financial decisions in due course. Formal budget legislation can follow, but a political authority does need to confirm the actual budget allocations as a matter of urgency."

Row erupts over Maskey tweet

Meanwhile, a fresh row has erupted after a senior Sinn Féin representative described Northern Ireland as a "putrid little statelet".

Unionists have described Alex Maskey's remarks as "offensive", accusing the West Belfast MLA of trying to "justify terrorism".

Mr Maskey said on Twitter: "Unfortunately it took more than the CRA (civil rights association) to secure rights in the putrid little statelet NI."

The comments were posted in response to an unrelated tweet from SDLP leader Colm Eastwood who, when commenting on the 100th anniversary of women's voting rights, noted: "We can't forget that it took the Civil Rights Association here to ensure that all people got full access to voting rights."

South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly was among those outraged by Mr Maskey's remarks.

She said: "To call Northern Ireland a 'putrid little statelet' shows utter contempt to many who, like me, are deeply proud of the province."

Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie dismissed the comments as "absolute offensive rubbish", adding: "Alex Maskey's description of Northern Ireland as a 'putrid little statelet' exemplifies a continued attitude of disrespect within Sinn Féin.

"This is all the more offensive, as the reference is within a tweet appearing to justify terrorism."