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Direct rule and crumbs from London coming soon

The trance-like Stormont talks stumble on with little sign of hope

By David Gordon

Are we living through the final days of "Zombie Talks" at Stormont? Have the negotiations ceased to exist in any real sense, become effectively lifeless?

Will they stumble on in a zombie-like trance, reckless and wobbling, until Friday's bitter end?

It's never too late for a deal, of course - even when we're officially told it's too late.

But just because they got there in the past is no guarantee of success now. Around the Stormont corridors in early January it was painfully obvious to many that the Executive was on the brink of collapse.

Yet in some quarters there was still a feeling that we'd been here before, something would be done to turn things round, it would still be all right on the night. It wasn't.

All the mood music coming from the talks this week is very downbeat. There's no sense of momentum, of a collective big push for agreement.

The uncertainty over what happens if Friday passes without a deal can hardly be helping to concentrate minds.

Another election?

Legislation at Westminster to block or postpone an election?

Direct rule from London?

Or just another round of negotiations, another final, final deadline? Zombie Talks II, the even scarier sequel?

The safest bet would seem to be on Secretary of State James Brokenshire doing as little as possible. A rates and budget order through Westminster, for example.

That could help regularise the budget situation and put some Ministerial authority behind what the civil servants have been doing with the finances in the absence of an Executive.

It could also clear the way for rates bills to be issued - and allow for more talks.

None of this will solve the central problem, of course.

Without a rapprochement between the DUP and Sinn Fein, we are heading for direct rule, sooner or later.

That's kind of important.

For more than 40 years the preferred model for government here has been power-sharing devolution. If we're looking at a full blown collapse at Stormont, then questions will inevitably be asked as to whether the power-sharing model has been tested to destruction.

If the answer to that question is yes, what the heck happens next? If we can't find a way to establish functional cross-community politics here, that is hardly good news for anyone. The loss of a devolved Executive would have serious policy implications in the here and now too.

Some stark warnings have been sounded through the pages of this newspaper in recent days.

John Compton, former health service chief, wrote about a potential £300m overspend this year and the "very real threat" the Stormont impasse poses to the functioning of the health and social care system.

Yesterday's paper carried an article from Professor Eileen Evason, the benefits expert who guided Stormont through the welfare reform crisis.

She wrote about the important protections put in place for claimants here, and the looming challenges faced in reviewing and updating our arrangements.

"It is difficult to see how progress can be made without resolution of the current political impasse," she warned.

None of this to argue that restoring the Executive will solve all our policy problems. The budget, when it finally comes, will have little by way of good news - irrespective of whether there's direct rule or an Assembly.

There are tough decisions to be made in health too, and it would be beyond the financial clout of a devolved administration to protect all claimants from benefit cuts introduced from London.

But isn't half a Stormont loaf still better than crumbs from London?

The Assembly and Executive are never going to win popularity contests any time soon.

However, all the indications are that most people still want imperfect devolution rather than direct rule.

They'd be wise not to get their hopes up.

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