Unless both the British government and Parliament decide on a fast- track for the necessary legislation, the new assembly and north-south body may not come into being before late 1999 at the earliest, sources close to the negotiations have told The Independent.
This means that even if agreement is reached by the deadline of May next year a potentially dangerous interregnum would result. A senior party source involved in the talks said yesterday: "This has huge implications for the re-creation of conflict. What would people do in the meantime, how would they hold the fort? There would be nowhere for people to engage and maintain momentum."
Under the most optimistic timetable agreement by next May would be followed, fairly promptly, by referendums on both parts of the border. But legislation would not be introduced at Westminster before late next year, and would not pass all its stages before the summer of 1999. The next step would be elections to a Belfast assembly. Senior sources say that with a fair wind and goodwill all this could not be accomplished before late 1999, and that delay at any stage means the institutions would not come into being before 2000.
More immediately, two major attempts will be made this week to sustain momentum in the talks and the peace process generally. Today the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, is to visit Stormont while on Thursday Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness will lead a Sinn Fein delegation to Downing Street to meet Tony Blair.
Within Stormont itself the participants are still essentially engaged in "talks about talks" rather than substantive negotiations. The form of contacts has been streamlined, however, to a format which the two governments hope will bear fruit by the middle of December.
The new arrangements bring party leaders and their deputies together in one room to compile a list of the main issues and to devise structures for resolving them. In the meantime, the parties have been more informally mulling over a Unionist idea for a structure which might be called a "council of the British isles".
The idea is that a new north-south body could be complemented by institutional links involving not only Dublin and a Belfast assembly but also the assemblies in Scotland and Wales.