The 'Agreement' merely set out an interlocking series of dates by which certain steps ought to be taken, but if any of them are not taken then the whole ramshackle construction comes to a halt. The two most important interlocking pieces are, of course, policing and justice, and parading – and the dates that the Agreement foresees for them are a bit scrambled, probably deliberately:
On policing and justice: "Following community consultation the First Minister and deputy First Minister will table jointly a resolution for a cross-community vote in the Assembly on 9 March".
But, before that: "Working group [on parading] completes work and reports on agreed outcomes to FM/dFM by 23 February".
So, the clear implication is that, if there are no 'agreed outcomes' on parading, the whole show stops. And Peter Robinson is, unhelpfully, starting to make warlike noises on parading:
In today's Belfast Telegraph Robinson writes:
"It has been a clear contradiction that, while the nationalist community demanded power be shared at Stormont, a section of nationalists refused to share something as basic as a road in an ever-increasing number of towns and villages across Northern Ireland.While the working group on parading has been given fairly clear instructions by the Hillsborough Agreement, there is sufficient room for movement to allow it to fail to agree – and given the DUP's repeated positions in favour of unlimited rights to march, it is likely that there will be, in fact, no agreement.
Its potential as a public order issue makes the link between it and policing clear.
Furthermore, our present system, the Parades Commission, has been a failure. It issued incoherent, unexplained and inconsistent determinations which did nothing to resolve the issues.
The swift timeline towards publication of draft legislation on the parades issue means that everyone will be able to see very quickly how the new start to parading can come about.
Indeed the report of the working group will be published before the Assembly takes its decision on policing and justice."
The failure of the parading working group would lead to yet another freezing of the transfer of policing and justice, with the inevitable consequences.
It is likely that the DUP does not actually intend to see the transfer of policing and justice on 12 April – it has merely agreed with Hillsborough in order to push the problem further into the future, and to try to use the parading issue as a way of pretending that the inflexibility is from Sinn Féin, rather than from the DUP.
The failure to agree by 23 February will be accompanied by furious denials of responsibility by the DUP members of the working group, and furious recriminations. Whether this will convince anyone is irrelevant – it will simply be designed to muddy the waters and to try to spread the blame. Before Hillsborough the 'blame' was clearly being attributed to the DUP by every single external actor – London, Dublin, Washington – and many internal actors – the PSNI, churches, etc – but if the DUP can succeed in confusing some people then they will feel that it was a worthwhile exercise.
And, of course, on April 12, when policing and justice is not actually transferred, what will the media be obsessing about? Yes, indeed, that is the exact date when Gordon Brown will be expected to dissolve the Westminster parliament in order to hold the election on May 6. So Northern Ireland will not even be mentioned in the media, and the DUP will feel that they have won a reprieve until well after the election – and election in which they will not have to face the extremist voters fearful of being called Lundies. No transfer of policing and justice before the election, confusion about whose fault it really is – the DUP's game plan could barely be clearer.
And after the election, the crisis begins again. Yet again.