A decision on the first meeting of the Stormont Executive in almost three months looked like going down to the wire today.
With Prime Minister Gordon Brown due to meet the political parties in Belfast tomorrow, the face-off between the DUP and Sinn Fein appeared to intensify.
But while the two main parties are still embroiled in detailed negotiations across a range of issues — primarily the devolution of policing and justice — the prospects of Thursday’s meeting taking place remain in the balance.
Sinn Fein has made clear it does not believe sufficient progress has been made in the negotiations over the last week.
And the DUP insisted without the meeting, the first since the middle of June, there would be a full blown “political crisis”.
There is speculation First Minister Peter Robinson could initiate High Court action after — as the Belfast Telegraph has revealed — accusing Sinn Fein Minister Conor Murphy of attempting to “subvert” the Executive.
The DUP leader could also ask the Independent Monitoring Commission for a ruling on whether Sinn Fein Ministers are fulfilling their pledges of office.
Senior Sinn Fein MLA John O’Dowd said he believed the meeting was unlikely. “The final decision rests with the Joint Ministers of Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, but in my opinion I do not believe there has been enough progress made towards partnership government for an Executive meeting this week,” he told the BBC Politics Show.
“What we want is a partnership government. To hold an Executive meeting in the absence of that is only playing to the optics.”
But Junior Minister Jeffrey Donaldson warned: “It would be incredible if Sinn Fein prevents a meeting of the Executive on Thursday. We cannot afford a crisis.”
The DUP MP said some progress had been made including agreement on a single Justice Minister and referring the issue of justice powers to the Assembly and Executive review committee. “For some reason that I cannot understand, after that agreement Sinn Fein set about creating a crisis. A crisis situation that no one out there wants,” he added.
The political brinkmanship continued as Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey urged Sinn Fein to back down on its refusal to allow Executive meetings to go ahead.
The Employment Minister said: “The community cannot understand Sinn Fein's decision to cripple the Executive all because it wants the devolution of policing and justice. Why should we be seeking more powers, especially over such a sensitive issue, when we demonstrably cannot exercise the powers we already have?”
Alliance chief whip Kieran McCarthy said: “The Executive parties have had a very lazy summer holiday. It’s time for them to start meeting again. They are telling people that progress is being made. We need to see evidence of any progress, and there appears to be very little.”