Work needed to save Stormont
The talks beginning today on resolving the crisis at Stormont caused by the murder of Kevin McGuigan are vital to the future of the devolved administration. It is clear that neither of the two main parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, want to collapse power-sharing, but the DUP is coming close to hanging itself on a hook from which it will be difficult to extricate itself.
Announcing that DUP ministers will not take part in Executive meetings unless in exceptional circumstances, the party warned that if the outcome of the talks are not satisfactory then ministers will resign, a move which could signal the reintroduction of direct rule.
There is an obvious problem with the DUP's position. While it says that business cannot continue as normal at Stormont given that the Chief Constable believes current members of the IRA were involved in the murder, it is not clear what it wants Sinn Fein or anyone else to do.
Sinn Fein denies that the IRA still exists - a position which most people find risible - but members have denounced the killing and urged any witnesses to give information to the PSNI. How can it demonstrate that it has no links with an organisation which it says does not exist any longer? Is there any possible outcome to the talks that will satisfy all sides? That looks very uncertain at this stage.
Sadly this crisis is deflecting attention away from what is the real problem at Stormont - the continued impasse over welfare reform. It is costing Northern Ireland an estimated £9.5m a month - or £316,000 a day - in lost revenue to the Treasury. That is money which we simply cannot afford to hand back to London and eventually we are going to end up with a huge black hole in the budget which could force senior civil servants to take over the running of departments.
It is an impasse which should not be happening. The parties had agreed to mitigate the worst of the welfare reforms introduced in other parts of the UK until Sinn Fein suddenly pulled the plug on that agreement.
If Stormont falls because of this latest crisis direct rule will have severe consequences for the province. As well as much stiffer welfare reforms, water charges and a raft of social issues such as gay marriage or new abortion legislation could also be introduced.
However it is couched, Stormont needs to get down to business and quickly.