The Environment Minister has warned that multi-million pound plans to streamline Northern Ireland's 26 local councils may be on the brink of collapse.
Edwin Poots made the stark assessment in a leaked letter obtained by the BBC telling his Executive peers time is running out to reach agreement.
He warned that failure to agree new council boundaries could mean he may not get the necessary legislation through by the end of this year.
And the minister — whose department is overseeing the shake-up — said it could result in the Northern Ireland Office calling local elections next year.
In March 2008 the Executive agreed to cut the 26 locals councils to 11 in a move seen as proof that the DUP and Sinn Fein could cut a deal on a big issue. The programme has cost £5.5m so far.
In his letter Mr Poots predicted that the whole local government reform programme — meant to save the Executive more than £400m over the next 25 years — could founder.
He also said he had a “strong sense” that local elections would be called if he could not provide the Secretary of State Shaun Woodward with an assurance that the Executive would bring forward legislation to implement the new local government boundaries by the end of 2009.
He said the timetable for the proposed Local Government (Reorganisation) Bill was “already challenging” and that agreement must be reached by the next meeting of the Executive.
Mr Poots said failure to agree on the boundaries would be a waste of time, money and effort which had already been expended on the programme.
He added that it would also cause “considerable damage” to the reputation of the Executive.
The Department of the Environment refused to comment on correspondence between ministers.
Last month it emerged that more than £90m has so far been spent on the Review of Public Administration, which also includes reforms to the health and education sectors.