Zombie Stormont: Prospect looms of a dead-man-walking Assembly, limping to the May elections
The window of opportunity to agree a deal in the Stormont talks is on the verge of closing.
Participants in the marathon 10-week process are predicting they will most likely break up today without resolution on the major issues.
The focus is now on securing a soft landing, with the British and Irish governments keen to avoid a collapse of the Stormont institutions.
This could see the Executive limping through until the May general election without a budget in place for the next financial year. Some have described this as a "zombie Assembly". The DUP and Sinn Fein are at odds over welfare reform changes and how to deal with contentious parades, flags and the legacy of past killings.
Expectations of any sort of deal were lowered yesterday after Sinn Fein delivered a shock to the unionists and the two governments by giving them a "bottom line" document that rejected all the British Government's policies on welfare reform, and saying the party would not stand for them to be introduced here. Sinn Fein has asked the British Government to fund the extra spending directly.
Civil servants are currently working on the cost of meeting this demand, but it is believed to be between £350m and £500m a year. Prime Minister David Cameron and Theresa Villiers, his Secretary of State, have repeatedly stated that there would be no new money for welfare reform.
A Peace and Investment Fund had been proposed partly to get round this.
The British Government, together with its Irish and American counterparts, and Europe, were to be asked to contribute to it.
The fund would be aimed at helping build a shared future, but it might free up other spending for welfare. A lesser package to blunt the overall impact of welfare reform here had been agreed, but that must be funded by Stormont. About £70m was set aside to meet hardship cases in the first year. There was talk of increasing this to £125m.
However, there was no suggestion of what would be cut to pay for it.
What the Prime Minister wants to avoid is a collapse of Stormont, which would impact on the May 7 general election. It may cost him money to achieve even that.
Ireland's Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan said yesterday: "The current window of opportunity to close the gaps on the key outstanding issues and to reach an agreement is rapidly closing."
Talks on flags, parading, the past, the budget, welfare reform and the reform of Stormont have been going on for the best part of 10 weeks. Last Friday Prime Minister David Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny left early and have not returned since. Late on Tuesday a Sinn Fein paper was leaked, which rejected all Mr Cameron's plans for welfare reform and demanding that he fund us to retain the old system here, even after the new one is introduced in England. Sinn Fein sources said its document is designed to protect the most vulnerable, but others described it as unaffordable.