Sinn Féin and the DUP have agreed that neither party will fill the post of justice and policing minister -- but Sinn Féin has reserved the right to take the job at a future date.
An agreement that neither party would head the new department when the key powers are devolved to Belfast was this week heralded as a breakthrough in the deadlocked negotations between the two parties.
The DUP and Sinn Féin have still to work out a timetable for the transfer of policing and justice authority from London to the Stormont Executive.
Sinn Féin junior minister Gerry Kelly said it should have happened by May, as set out in the St Andrew’s Agreement.
“Sinn Féin want to see it happen in the short time ahead,” he said.
“We have agreed with the DUP that powers would be transferred to a single department, with a single minister elected by cross community support and that initially neither ourselves nor the DUP would take on that ministry. This is a significant development.
Party president Gerry Adams said the agreement was not permanent and pointed out that the term used in the letter outlining the agreement was ‘initially’.
Mr Adams said the deal represented a sensible way of allaying concerns of both parties that the other would be given the responsibility.
“There’s absolutely no reason -- if Sinn Féin have the mandate -- why, leaving aside this arrangement, that as a principle we have the entitlement, if we have the mandate, to any departmental responsibility,” he said.
“What we were trying to do in a sensible way was to deal with what are expressed as unionist concerns.
“There are also nationalist and republican concerns. I mean, can you imagine a DUP justice minister?
“So there’s a trade-off here in a sensible way trying to deal with the sensitivities of the issue.”
As neither party will nominate for the post, the possibility remains of an SDLP, UUP or Alliance minister.
The moderately unionist Alliance party has already said it will not take the job, denouncing what it said was the failure of the two largest parties to include them in talks. Reg Empey’s Ulster Unionist party said the move was premature, while the nationalist SDLP said it was ready to fill the post.
Mr Adams said the Stormont Assembly would decide who would fill the role but it was important the powers were transferred sooner rather than later.
A collapse of the northern institutions in the short term is now thought to be less likely, but serious negotiations are still needed on the timetable for devolution, legislation for the Irish language, education reform, the future of the Long Kesh site and other issues.
However, the DUP has said it is already in pre-election mode ahead of a possible autumn assembly poll if agreement is not reached.
Party leader peter Robinson attacked what he said were “bizarre” suggestions by Mr Adams that a target date for devolution had been reached.
“[Mr Adams’s] repeated suggestion that the DUP signed up to a date, or even a target date, for the devolution of policing and justice functions to the Northern Ireland Assembly at St Andrews is demonstrably false,” said Mr Robinson.
“There is no definitive date for the devolution of policing and justice powers. We remain of the unshakable view that those powers can only be transferred whenever there is the required community confidence.”
Contact is continuing between the two parties and is expected to intensify in the coming weeks.