Environment Minister Alex Attwood last week officially advised a forthcoming planning tribunal that a 20-shop development including a John Lewis superstore should not be permitted at Sprucefield near Lisburn. Yesterday (Feb 1), the developers responded by withdrawing their application and saying there was no other suitable location in Northern Ireland.
First Minister Peter Robinson has vowed that the Executive will have the final say on the controversial planning policy which has forced retail giant John Lewis to walk away from Sprucefield.
This means the nine-year saga of the £150m, 1,500-job development will run for a number of weeks around the Executive table and that the project may yet be salvaged.
It also raises questions about the system by which ministers have considerable autonomy in their own departments.
Mr Robinson made it clear that he and his party backed locating the development, compromising John Lewis and 19 additional shops, out-of-town rather than losing it altogether.
"We have a very significant regional centre at Sprucefield and the John Lewis proposal fits very well with that overall concept," Mr Robinson said.
It puts him on a collision course with Alex Attwood, the SDLP Environment Minister, who last week advised a planning tribunal that such a development should go to central Belfast under the Executive's Belfast First policy.
In response, John Lewis and the development company withdrew their planning application, saying: "Sprucefield is the only suitable location to develop a new full-line department store in Northern Ireland."
Mr Attwood told the Belfast Telegraph: "Sprucefield is a regional centre and it can have a good future, but that good future, in my view, has to revolve around bulky goods, roof-rack items", such as washing machines and furniture.
Mr Attwood's department had some hope that the company might relocate to the Royal Exchange, a proposed development on the north of Belfast city centre.
However, last night a spokesman confirmed that this development had already been ruled out as unsuitable.
However, Waitrose, a high-end supermarket chain owned by John Lewis, is considering locating here and has also been seeking a site. A John Lewis spokesman said that the company would still locate in Sprucefield if the Executive cleared it to do so.
He accused Mr Attwood of "moving the goalposts" with his bulky goods ruling.
No such restriction for Sprucefield had been included in the Northern Ireland Regional Plan, on which the John Lewis application was based.
Mr Attwood believes that he has both the ministerial authority and the ministerial responsibility to give the advice to the Sprucefield planning inquiry and believes he cannot be overruled. "This is due to the independence accorded ministers under the Good Friday Agreement and encapsulated in the Northern Ireland Act 1998," he said.
Some ministers and former ministers we spoke to agreed with him.
The DUP is relying on changes made to the Act following the St Andrews Agreement, which it signed with Sinn Féin in 2006.
Under Section 20 and 28A of the amended Act, the OFMDFM can jointly refer any matter to the Executive which they both consider "significant or controversial". Once that happens, the DUP argues, the minister's decision is effectively set aside unless it is approved by the whole Executive.
This is a legally complex area and has all the makings of a showdown which could conceivably make the SDLP reconsider its position in Government. In the past it has said that this could happen if it became impossible for its minister to function.
However, before that happens the ministers may seek the guidance of the Attorney General John Larkin.
The saga, now bogged down in the planning process for nine years, still has some time to run, and one last sting in its tail.