Arlene Foster is 'open to talks with Sinn Fein' to avoid power-sharing collapse
Stormont's former First Minister Arlene Foster has said she is open to talks with Sinn Fein to avert a meltdown of Northern Ireland's power-sharing institutions.
The Democratic Unionist leader also announced plans for a public inquiry into the botched green energy scheme that prompted the resignation of the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness on Monday.
She insisted the inquiry could go ahead without the sign-off of the DUP's partners in government, Sinn Fein.
"We are willing to take part with any discussion to see if a way forward can be found," she said.
"I remain open to further discussions with Sinn Fein or any of the other parties in the Assembly over the next few days."
The departure of Sinn Fein veteran Mr McGuinness amid a row over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) forced Mrs Foster from her job as First Minister as well.
Theoretically the parties have seven days to resolve their differences before Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has to call a snap poll.
However, Mr McGuinness has made clear there will be no going back to the status quo and his party is preparing to face the electorate.
Mrs Foster said a DUP minister would announce plans for a public inquiry into the RHI affair later this week. The furore has left Stormont facing a £490 million overspend.
She said it was important for Stormont's reputation and her own.
"It's needed to restore confidence in the institutions and also for me personally, to retain my integrity, which has been completely maligned over this past number of weeks and months," she said.
Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said he could see no prospect of any agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP.
"The DUP and Sinn Fein have painted themselves into corners. We have a face-off. I don't think the public need any more proof, 10 years on from when they started this project, that it is a project doomed for failure, that they cannot work together.
"If there is an election this year, it will be the first time the electorate can either vote to return the parties of government, or vote for an alternative. I don't think a long period of suspension is what we need or what has to happen. What we need is a commitment to forming an executive with, at the heart of it, two parties representing our two traditional communities who want to work together for the common good," he added.
Mr Nesbitt said there was a need for a return to the Belfast Agreement of 1998, which was "designed to bring forward power and responsibility-sharing between parties who wanted to share power because they understood that the only way to create a better Northern Ireland for everybody was to work together".
"In the last 10 years we have not had that. We have had parties who have worked together simply because the law said they have to," he said.
Mrs Foster's remarks came after Mr Brokenshire appealed to Northern Ireland's political leaders to step back from the brink.
He told the Commons the situation at Stormont following Mr McGuinness's resignation was "grave" and a snap election was now highly likely.
Mr Brokenshire expressed concern about the consequences of an election, raising the spectre of a return to direct rule.
He urged the leaders to work together to find a resolution and safeguard the progress made under the peace process.
"We must not put all of this at risk without every effort to resolve differences," he said.
"We must continue to do all we can to continue to build a brighter, more secure Northern Ireland that works for everyone, and I therefore urge Northern Ireland's political leaders to work together to come together to find a way forward from the current position in the best interests of Northern Ireland."
He said: "We do have to be realistic - the clock is ticking.
"If there is no resolution, an election is inevitable despite the widely held view that this election may deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions."
A senior Democratic Unionist has predicted that Northern Ireland faces a prolonged period of direct rule from Westminster.
Jeffrey Donaldson said the bitter political row between his party and Sinn Fein was unlikely to be resolved without a lengthy talks process following the looming snap election.
The DUP MP also questioned whether the existing mandatory coalition power-sharing arrangements could ever be revived, and said his party could now press for major reform and the introduction of a system of voluntary coalition.
"My own sense of where we are is that we are looking at a prolonged period of direct rule because I don't see these issues being resolved in a talks process in a short space of time," he said.
- Read more: Arlene Foster says she's been 'disgracefully maligned in the most vicious manner' over RHI scandal
"I think that Sinn Fein have dealt a serious blow to power-sharing and I think the prospect of a mandatory coalition being restored has been greatly diminished, so if we are going to have another talks process then I think unionists will want to be looking at how Stormont operates and whether we should be moving towards our objective of a voluntary coalition form of government."
Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir accused the DUP of having "spat in the face" of the principles of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace accord.
He made clear that Sinn Fein would need to gain DUP concessions on a range of issues before contemplating a return to the Executive.
DUP ministers would not be "swanning (back) into office, we are not going back to the status quo", he warned.
"The Good Friday Agreement has been trampled upon by the DUP, we need to get back to the principles in the Good Friday Agreement," Mr O Muilleoir told RTE.
Mr McGuinness's decision to walk away after 10 years of sharing power with the DUP came in response to Mrs Foster's refusal to stand aside to facilitate a probe into the RHI - the so-called "cash for ash" furore.