As the DUP and Sinn Féin continue talks to reach a deal on difficult issues, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is expected to visit Belfast next Tuesday.
Behind-the-scenes discussions between Sinn Féin and the DUP continued in Stormont Castle this week but no statement on their deliberations was given.
It is too early to say whether the negotiations will succeed.
The talks, described as “ongoing”, involve exchanges inside the Stormont rooms of First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Many issues must be dealth with, among them the long-delayed transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast.
In discussions this summer the DUP and Sinn Féin indicated that there should be one justice department and a single minister.
Yesterday the assembly and executive review committee had its first meeting after the summer recess. SDLP committee member Alex Attwood said his party had “put the DUP proposals for justice devolution through the mincer” and put down markers about the shape, nature and authority of the justice ministry.
Mr Attwood said the current proposal to elect a justice minister by cross-community vote was anti-democratic as it would over-ride d’Hondt, the mechanism used to distribute ministerial office among all the elected parties in the North.
“The SDLP will work to dissuade Sinn Féin to turn back from this dangerous path,” he said.
His comments came despite party leader Mark Durkan’s near simultaneous call for the d’Hondt mechanism to be abandoned a the future Executive.
The executive is expected to meet next Thursday but that may depend on whether the DUP and Sinn Féin talks achieve sufficient progress. If the meeting is to go ahead it is likely that its agenda will not be known until next week.
Meanwhile, the North’s environment minister, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson, has banned officials from the 26 Counties from sitting on committees that advise him.
In a further strain to the political process, the recently appointed unionist hardliner has refused to allow a respected southern conservationist to be reappointed to an environmental council because he is not “from Northern Ireland”.
And he has decided that no representatives from the South will be appointed to sit on any of the three councils that advise his department.
The move has again spotlighted the issue of ‘balkanisation’ within the northern Executive, where individual Ministers have implemented controversial policies within their own departments.
Southern experts have traditionally been represented on environmental councils in the north because many such issues require input from both sides of the border.
Northern representatives also normally sit on councils which advise the Dublin government on the environment.
However, Mr Wilson’s decision has all but ended cross-border co-operation on the environment.
“We now have a new regime. We have devolution. The minister feels people from Northern Ireland should be serving on boards relating to Northern Ireland,” said a spokesman for Mr Wilson.
Sinn Féin’s environment spokesman Daithi McKay said Mr Wilson’s decision was short-sighted and petty-minded. “Whether Sammy appreciates it or not, environmental issues do not recognise artificial borders,” he said.
Mr Wilson’s decision is being viewed as a further indication that the DUP is toughening its opposition to cross-border links, and follows the party’s refusal to join a North-South parliamentary committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.