Governments admit election is likely as Stormont heads for collapse
The British and Irish governments have conceded an election is increasingly likely as Stormont's power-sharing administration heads for collapse.
The clock is ticking on dissolution of the devolved institutions, with Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire set to order a poll at the start of next week.
The DUP has called for fresh negotiations to avoid a "brutal" contest but Sinn Fein insisted the matter should be placed before the people.
On Thursday a Democratic Unionist minister reversed his controversial decision to cut an Irish language initiative in what some have interpreted as an olive branch.
After meeting the parties Mr Brokenshire said: "The reality remains, the high probability remains, that we are heading towards an election."
Charlie Flanagan, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister, was also in Belfast to try and avert a poll.
He said: "I believe an election is much closer. The Secretary of State on Monday, in my view, will be left with no choice but to dissolve the Assembly and announce an election."
A scandal over a botched green energy scheme which threatens to leave the taxpayer £490 million out of pocket precipitated the resignation of Sinn Fein's ailing deputy first minister Martin McGuinness on Monday.
It is a joint office so he took first minister Arlene Foster, who established the eco-boilers scheme, with him and has doomed the institutions to fall unless Sinn Fein nominates a successor next Monday - a step republicans have vowed not to take.
Sinn Fein Stormont minister Michelle O'Neill said: "Martin made his position very clear when he placed his resignation in the Assembly on Monday. We now need to move to an election.
"We now believe, on the back of this latest scandal of renewable heat incentive (RHI), and a whole litany of issues in relation to equality, that it is now over to the public to have their say and to place their vote."
Mr Brokenshire said he did not want to pre-judge what the outcome of the vote might be and warned an election could be divisive.
DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan's decision to cut a £50,000 bursary to pay for children to visit Irish-speaking communities - the Gaeltacht - infuriated Sinn Fein and has been seen as a key factor in the republican party's decision to pull the plug on the power-sharing institutions.
In a tweet on Thursday morning, Mr Givan said: "My decision on the Liofa Bursary Scheme was not a political decision.
"I have now identified the necessary funding to advance this scheme."
The development has been interpreted by some as a DUP olive branch to Sinn Fein.
Mr Flanagan said: "There is a window of opportunity, albeit extremely narrow. I believe we are facing into an electoral contest and the Irish Government is very conscious of the need to protect the institutions and also the integrity of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement."