The British and Irish governments ducked out of a confrontation with Northern Ireland's political parties last night and kept their promised proposals to save Stormont under wraps.
Premiers Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen had pledged to published their own blueprint for the way ahead but, in the end appear to have blinked first.
Last night a fifth night of negotiations at Hillsborough was ongoing — the longest period of talks since the Good Friday Agreement — with little sign of resolution.
While further progress was being signalled, particularly on the thorny issue of ensuring a Justice Minister has autonomy but can still be accountable, there was no guarantee of an overall successful outcome.
Against a backdrop of increasing pessimism there were fears republicans would finally trigger their threat to topple Stormont, with Martin McGuinness resigning as Deputy First Minister in the Assembly on Monday.
That would start the clock ticking for a further week in which time pressure for a package to save Stormont from self-destruction could still be agreed.
If on Monday week Sinn Fein refuses to re-nominate, the Government would probably call new elections — or suspend the institutions and attempt further talks.
London and Dublin back-tracked on their own deadline for making public their proposals to resolve the long-standing impasse over policing and justice powers and parading.
After announcing their intention to publish their blueprint on Monday, Mr Brown and Taoiseach Brian Cowen yesterday delayed their plans to instead throw the talks another lifeline.
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman said the governments would review the “outcome” of the talks which he confirmed were outgoing — but no new deadline was given.
“The key point is the talking is still going on,” one Belfast official said. “Does anyone think it would be wise for the governments to say ‘okay, that's it' if there is still progress being made?”
Prime Minister Brown and Mr Cowen, who both cleared their diaries to allow for a return to Hillsborough, appear to have decided against it after being briefed by Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and Irish Foreign Minister Micheal Martin.
There was a heavy security presence as speculation grew that the PMs were about to fly in again — 48 hours after departing and seeming to impose a 48-hour cut-off point.
Talks sources said Mr Woodward and Mr Martin went into a one-to-one meeting around 3pm yesterday and then spoke to the Premiers.
The Sinn Fein talks team left the venue to meet senior party officers and blamed the DUP for delaying a deal by insisting on a replacement mechanism to the Parades Commission.
Sinn Fein minister Conor Murphy said: “We do have to come to a stage where, if it isn't working properly, we have a responsibility to be honest with people and say the basis on which we went into these institutions, the basis |on which we agreed with the |DUP and the two governments that they would work, is not working.
“We're busy talking to the two governments, to the DUP. Our preference would be to get an agreement so we can move on. But if that's not available we would have to assess where we go from there.”
DUP leader Peter Robinson, however, said his party remained relaxed and up for a deal — if the conditions are right — but he was “not interested” in threats or deadlines.
“If the deal isn't right it won't be done. We are not afraid of the devolution of policing and justice. But, until I have a package that looks right, I'll not be going to my party colleagues to ask for support,” the currently stood-down First Minister added.
There were reports some of the participants were exhausted after meetings going on until around 5am for two nights since the negotiations began around tea-time last Monday.
And there were some suggestions the talks could be suspended for the weekend — the DUP insisting it would not be negotiating on Sunday — and resume on Monday.
Alternatively, the parties may opt to keep at it until a deal is struck, or bust.
The talks are now the longest on-going period of negotiations and even those that led to the 1998 Agreement did not involve as many all-night sessions.