Stormont crisis: Solving north Belfast Ardoyne parade problem could drain some of the poison out
Theresa Villiers is dealing with the political equivalent of a Rubik's Cube as she talks to the political parties this week. To mix a metaphor, it is a puzzle that could easily blow up in her hands if she twists too hard, or not firmly enough.
It will be very hard to get the parties' contrasting demands to line up, but they are in such a mess financially that there is a strong incentive on them to give some appearance of co-operation.
The Secretary of State's mission was spelt out in a speech by her boss David Cameron after the Scottish independence referendum result.
"In Northern Ireland we must work to ensure that the devolved institutions function effectively," he said. That will involve tackling a number of issues.
The smallest of them – but the key to the rest – may be the parading dispute in north Belfast.
The Parades Commission, the Belfast Telegraph and unionists have all suggested a standalone process to deal with that. More recently unionists have demanded that it finish its deliberations before Christmas.
Ms Villiers needs to do something on this as leverage to get unionists to re-enter talks on flags, parading and the past (the legacy issues). They walked out of the last round in July in protest at a Parades Commission ruling that denied the Ligoniel Orange Lodges permission to march home past Ardoyne shops.
Ms Villiers will find it hard to get nationalists to accept that, but she has some hope if she moves away from the tight unionist timetable and runs it in parallel with legacy talks. Getting progress on these issues would draw some of the poison out of the political system.
The most important issue of all, and the one that threatens to bring the institutions tumbling down within months, is budgetary.
Implementing welfare reform or paying for it if we don't is a massive challenge. There is also an historic overspend that makes matters worse.
No doubt in talks the bite will go on Government to provide more money, and the DUP believes that a small amount may be forthcoming. Perhaps £87m.
It would only be worth helping the Executive out of this hole if some mechanism were set in place to stop it digging a new one and asking for help again. That means streamlining decision-making and removing some of the blocking mechanisms which dog our system. In some cases it may be easier for a party to publicly oppose a policy and allow itself to be outvoted than to agree after going out on a limb about it. That may be the case with Sinn Fein on welfare reform or the DUP on some legacy issues.
The alternative of bringing in civil servants to run our budget or reintroducing direct rule would be a signal of failure for our politicians and for the entire political settlement.
It would send a message of instability to investors and to the rest of the world, which would make our problems worse.