'Agree on welfare reform or direct rule will be back'
Handing the welfare reform impasse over to Westminster to sort out would effectively be a return to direct rule, it has been claimed.
Quintin Oliver, a political consultant with Stratagem, said it could also open the door to further austerity measures.
"It would be Northern Ireland giving back the devolved power or Westminster suspending part of devolution," he said.
Mr Oliver said he understood that all options which were legally and constitutionally possible were being explored to resolve the saga.
This included suspending the Assembly but leaving the Executive, so the Executive could still have powers to make decisions even if it was not accountable to MLAs.
"I've heard of the Executive being given powers but the Assembly suspended," Mr Oliver added.
"I've also heard of partial direct rule to get over the welfare reform problem alone, I've heard of a short-term direct rule to make some tough decisions and then give back the powers.
"And I've heard of appointing the Department of Finance Permanent Secretary as the administrator for Northern Ireland. I've heard of these options being kicked around. I think that they mean that everyone is getting very serious, including the two governments and the Americans, as evidenced by Gary Hart's visit this week and as evidenced by a change in tone of our politicians as they voted through a budget yesterday.
"As they're getting into serious discussions, having got through the budget, welfare reform is next up."
Mr Oliver, who ran the Yes campaign in the 1998 referendum on the Good Friday Agreement, said direct rule, whether full or partial, was a massive gamble.
"Last time it took five years to get devolution back between the 2002 Stormontgate suspension and 2007," he said.