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Unionists need to recognise the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will not get everything it wants in negotiations with the government, ex-first minister Peter Robinson has said.
But he said the government could do more and that things were "not quite there" yet on a deal.
The DUP has been boycotting devolution since last February, in protest at post-Brexit trade arrangements.
The party said Mr Robinson was giving his own views and analysis.
He was leader from 2008 until 2016.
In an interview with BBC Radio Ulster's Talkback programme, he said a moment was approaching where unionists may have to realise "we have really pushed this one".
For months, the DUP has been engaged with Number 10 in talks aimed at securing extra changes to the Windsor Framework.
The framework is the deal agreed by the UK and EU which sought to reduce the level of checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The government has said talks with the DUP are in the final stages, but the DUP has repeatedly said gaps are outstanding.
Mr Robinson said he supported the strategy taken by DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson.
But he warned that negotiations could not drift beyond the end of this year.
"I don't think you can go beyond the turn of the year without the government having to look at some other way of governing Northern Ireland," he added.
'A good deal'
Mr Robinson added that constitutionally it would mean a move back to direct rule, with "greater involvement" from the government in Dublin.
But the former first minister said he hoped a deal could be reached in the coming weeks to avoid that scenario.
"There's a stage where unionists have to recognise that we really have pushed this one, we have got a good deal - not everything that we wanted but the rest that we do want... we're in position to argue for it and to achieve it using the assembly as our base for doing it," he said.
"I don't believe at this moment in time we are quite there, but there are further steps that the government can take and I hope they do."
Responding to Mr Robinson's comments, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said "you have to see the nature of the deal, to decide if it's a good deal or not".
He told BBC Radio Ulster's Good Morning Ulster he did not get the impression that "we are close" to a deal.
In a statement, the DUP said Mr Robinson was not speaking on behalf of the party.
"His own views and analysis are shared by him on the basis of years of experience," it added.
"This is a time for cool heads. We will judge any outcome against our clearly declared objectives of restoring our place in the union and our ability to trade within the UK."
Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie agreed that Stormont was where many of the issues that unionists face in relation to Brexit could be resolved.
"He [Peter Robinson] is literally saying what I have been saying for the last two years," he added.
Mr Beattie said he thought Mr Robinson's comments added "a bit of weight" to DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson trying to get Stormont "back up and running again".
Orange Order grand secretary Mervyn Gibson told BBC News NI that he thought Mr Robinson was sending a message to the government.
"I think he is actually saying to the British government, there's not a lot to do here, but if you can get it across the line, then the party will go back in supported by the people," he added.
"Everybody knows they are not going to get 100%. The bottom line in all of this is it has to be a fair deal."
Speaking to Times Radio on Monday, Mr Robinson also referenced dual market access for businesses in NI as part of the Windsor Framework, saying they could have "the best of both worlds".
He added: "Waiting until you get things right could serve the country very well and we could have virtually the best of both worlds with having access in a seamless way, both to the UK market and the European market."
Peter Robinson clearly got the memo. In fact he may have helped to write it.
His message to fellow unionists was almost identical to the one delivered by Sir Jeffrey Donaldson in his party conference speech last month.
A restored Stormont is the only way to protect the union, he said, while warning that direct rule would place Northern Ireland at the mercy of those who betrayed unionists at every turn.
Like Sir Jeffrey, he also warned the DUP may not get all they demand and compromise may be needed to secure the union.
But Peter Robinson went further than the current DUP leader in preparing the ground for a deal.
He signalled that any deal may not be the complete package and may need to be worked on through a restored Assembly.
He also used a phrase which has been banished in DUP circles, when he suggested Northern Ireland could benefit from the "best of both worlds" with "seamless" access to both the UK and EU markets.
It is an eye catching intervention at a critical moment, but will it be enough to head off any internal party dissent?
Mr Robinson also reflected on his view of how nationalists and republicans operate in political negotiations, compared to unionists.
"Each step they take, they look to see does that take us closer to our objective.
"Unionists and loyalists think they should clear the table in one visit, to use a snooker analogy, but that's not always possible. What you want to do is make sure you have a sufficient score to enable you to clear the table when next you go to it."