By Steven McCaffery
DELAY has been a recurring feature of the Northern Ireland government led by the DUP and Sinn Féin.
But the parties are now staring into the biggest backlog of work they have arguably ever faced.
And that towering in-tray, while already teetering, is about to have the outcome of the Haass talks tipped on top of the pile.
There are signals from behind the scenes that the parties are exploring the possibility of fresh deals to reclaim the political initiative.
But it is unclear how that will pan out.
A kaleidoscope of competing forces is now in play: Stormont parties are deadlocked on a string of important policy decisions, the Haass talks are coming to a head, the fallout from a year of street disturbances is still being felt, while politicians are also in election mode as they face polls in each of the next three years.
Will the DUP seek to reconnect with its base by sticking to a hard line? Or will it return to adopting a more positive stance in a bid to broaden its electoral appeal?
Will Sinn Féin be able to crack fresh deals with the DUP after the pair split over redeveloping the Maze prison site? And as Sinn Féin faces crucial local government elections in the Republic next year, how will that affect its handling of issues such as welfare cuts north of the border?
Opponents of the two parties are demanding swift action on a series of fronts, but the DUP and Sinn Féin face a string of tough decisions, with potentially far reaching implications.THE ASSEMBLY
In July 2012, First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness announced they had reached agreement on a series of delayed initiatives.
They promised action on redeveloping the Maze, on Welfare reform, on tackling bureaucracy by introducing the Education and Skills Authority (ESA), and combating poverty by rolling-out the £80 million Social Investment Fund.
More than a year later these important pillars of the Programme for Government are still not in place.
The continuing stalemate has fuelled the wider public perception that Stormont `can’t deliver’.
There are signs, however, that the wheels are turning again at Stormont Castle – where the two leaders have their official offices and which is the real seat of power, not the Assembly.
It appears, for example, that the much delayed Social Investment Fund (SIF) is back on the agenda.
Last month The Detail reported how the £80 million fund – that was first proposed in 2010 and formally launched in March 2011 – has yet to pass a single penny to the deprived communities it promised to support.
Red tape was blamed. But Sinn Féin also confirmed it wanted the fund distributed on the basis of objective need, with data showing higher levels of poverty in nationalist districts.
Stormont officials are still evaluating 89 proposed schemes from across Northern Ireland, but that has not delayed political discussions on agreeing a framework for releasing money to projects that are ready to go. But by last month, no agreement was in place.
Now, however, it is understood that the two parties have held fresh discussions on the SIF.
A breakthrough may hinge on DUP support for an initial agreement to release a portion of the fund, though Sinn Féin may seek a deal covering the eventual release of the entire £80 million.
Other big issues are back on the table – but only time will tell what is `deliverable’ at Stormont.THE HAASS TALKS ARE HEATING UP
Public opinion has helped change the mood music in the separate set of talks aimed at resolving deadlock over flags, parades, emblems and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.
When talks chairman and former US envoy Richard Haass said he was seeking proposals from ordinary citizens, the gesture was dismissed by sceptics.
But after receiving 400 submissions, Dr Haass has been able to declare that his test of “the mood of the society” has revealed a public appetite for a deal.
The opinions of victims of the Troubles are being heard.
And there is also input from the Irish government, and to a lesser extent, from the British government. The most influential input could come from the US administration.
This may all add to pressure on parties as the Haass talks approach their Christmas deadline – the season of goodwill.
So far, some parties have predicted a limited deal covering only flags and parades.
But Northern Ireland already has a Parades Commission to adjudicate on controversial marches, as well as a protocol on flying flags.
After a year of violence and political chaos, a deal that tweaks these existing processes could leave the outside world decidedly under-whelmed.
Haass returns within days to continue to press for a wider deal.CHRISTMAS IS COMING…
Between the Stormont agenda and the Haass talks, the list of issues demanding attention is growing.
The fresh discussions behind the scenes between the DUP and Sinn Féin may yet bear fruit.
In the absence of a breakthrough at Stormont, the political arena that is already known for long delays, faces the mother of all logjams.