A new statement from the IRA is expected to confirm its recent indication of a plan to put arms beyond use but is unlikely to concede the further advance demanded by the Ulster Unionist leader, David Trimble.
With such a gap between republican and Unionist positions, it leaves the Northern Ireland Assembly and executive facing suspension or some form of cold storage by the weekend.
Contacts were yesterday said to be continuing on the question of policing, with the Government possibly hoping that agreement might open up the prospect of more IRA movement on weaponry.
But most in political circles seemed increasingly resigned to having the devolved government placed in mothballs as a result of the lack of agreement on decommissioning.
The British and Irish governments, together with the decommissioning body chairman, General John de Chastelain, were clearly impressed by the recent IRA plan suggesting a means of decommissioning. General De Chastelain approved the method, while London and Dublin have both altered legal regulations to accommodate it.
But Mr Trimble has insisted that actual decommissioning is now required, prompting an angry response from Sinn Fein.
The Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, said: "I don't think any of us should underestimate the intensity of the crisis which is opening up. The reality is that the institutions are going to collapse in a very short time, given the management of the process at this point."
Both republicans and Unionists indulged in the blame game. The Ulster Unionist MP Jeffrey Donaldson said: "If Gerry Adams is looking for someone to blame for collapse, then he need look no further than the nearest mirror. Let him be in no doubt that full responsibility lies with the republican movement's intransigence and their insatiable demands for more."
A grim prediction was made by Sean Neeson, leader of the Alliance party. He said: "We are facing the reality of a further political vacuum. The inevitable violence that follows could lead us back to the kind of violence only seen in the darkest days."
The Government now has a variety of options, the most obvious of which is suspension or the calling of fresh Assembly elections. A review may be on the cards, or the tactical device of a one-day suspension to allow a further six weeks in which to tackle the issues again.
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