Civil Service 'can't make policy decisions without a minister'
Senior civil servants' hands are tied over decision-making at Stormont - despite legislation allowing them to spend money, according to a political expert.
The Departments (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 says that "any functions of a department may be exercised" by either the minister or a senior officer of the department, Queen's University emeritus politics Professor Rick Wilford explained.
But civil servants can only release funding on the basis of previous ministerial policy decisions.
Civil servants cannot make "fresh policy decisions on their own without ministerial guidance", he added.
Asked if senior civil servants would officially step in to take ministerial decisions following the collapse of the talks, a Northern Ireland Office spokesman said that the Secretary of State "will be updating early next week regarding next steps".
"Over the past year there is a lot that civil servants could draw on the basis of previous agreements," Professor Wilford said.
"What they are doing is making their best informed estimate of what can be released on issues where there is agreement.
"In the situation we are in at the moment it's still the case that we could limp on, on the basis of those decisions.
"What they can't do is strike out in new policy directions in the absence of ministerial agreement.
"But we're coming to the end of the previous financial year and we need a new budget to dispense money.
"The Secretary of State will have to make a decision. What she will be very reluctant to do if we do get direct rule is make big, strategic, policy decisions.
"But if we have other ministers in place she will then be in a position to give ministerial direction over new patterns of public spending."
Professor Wilford believes Northern Ireland could be in for a period of direct rule 'light', with Westminster making only basic decisions on infrastructure while 'parking' social issues.
"At the moment what the Secretary of State and UK Government have to decide is if they will keep the door open on the talks process and limp on for a limited period on the basis we have done for the last 18 months, and she will strike a budget for Northern Ireland.
"I think if it comes to direct rule they will focus attention on the level of service delivery in health and education.
"They will park social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. However, if direct rule lasts, it would be very difficult to tread water on those issues in the longer run."
The Executive Office said Article 4 of the Departments (NI) Order 1999 "provides that departmental powers may be exercised by ministers or senior officials".
"In the absence of ministers, decision-makers must continue to act within statutory powers and will take into account both the previous direction of ministers and the public interest.
"Decision-makers will take legal advice where necessary."
It added: "Every case must be determined on its own merits, and the nuanced judgment between taking a decision now and awaiting the return of ministers must be made on a case-by-case basis."