A political crisis engulfing Stormont has left Northern Ireland facing a brutal election and a return to Westminster direct rule, Arlene Foster has warned.
The Democratic Unionist leader, who was forcibly removed as first minister by her counterpart Martin McGuinness's resignation on Monday, also announced plans for a public inquiry into the renewable heating scandal at the heart of the Executive's collapse.
Mrs Foster said she would be willing to enter talks with Sinn Féin to avert an election, but the republican party made clear the region was heading to the polls.
Her pledge came as party colleague Gavin Robinson told MPs the downing of the Stormont Executive would halt the implementation of planned mitigation measures to support welfare claimants in Northern Ireland losing out under the UK government's so-called 'bedroom tax'.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the situation was of the DUP's making. He insisted the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) furore was only one of many issues his party needed to be resolved before re-entering government with the DUP.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Féin wants the DUP to give ground in relation to issues such as the Irish language and the ongoing ban on same-sex marriage. Mrs Foster, in turn, said her party wanted to review the fundamental structures of Stormont's mandatory coalition arrangements, with a view to moving to voluntary coalition government.
With that number of seemingly intractable disputes to overcome, even if the DUP and Sinn Féin were returned as the two largest parties following a snap poll, the prospect of them agreeing to form an executive are slim. That raises the spectre of the UK government suspending the institutions and reintroducing direct rule after 10 years of unbroken devolution.
"I have no doubt that if the election proceeds it will be a brutal election, it will be a very difficult election," Mrs Foster said. "Undoubtedly we are in for a period of direct rule.
"I really do regret that. I think what the people of Northern Ireland want is stability but that has all been thrown into very sharp relief yesterday by the actions of Sinn Féin for hugely party political reasons and not for any other reason."
However, the Government here dismissed the prospect of Northern Ireland returning to direct rule from Westminster if a power-sharing executive cannot be agreed after the election.
Senior sources described direct rule as a "bogeyman" being used by unionists.
But one source in Dublin said: "A return to direct rule is nearly not even an option at this stage and London would be very resistant to it."
The Government believes the frameworks laid out under the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements make direct rule from Westminster all but "unworkable".
"It's being used as a potential stick by people who know not many people read the fine print of treaties and agreements," the source said.
However, there are real concerns in Government over the outcome of the Assembly elections due to take place in the coming weeks. It is feared a reduction in the number of seats would result in a tense election which would see the smaller parties lose a significant number of seats and make the Assembly less inclusive.
The Government believes Sinn Féin and the DUP could potentially become more dominant in the North due to the changes in constituency boundaries and the number of seats in the Assembly.
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan briefed his Cabinet colleagues extensively on these concerns yesterday.
Mr Flanagan is believed to have spoken with Mr McGuinness about his decision to resign as deputy first minister.
The Foreign Affairs Minister is also in contact with his counterpart Northern Secretary James Brokenshire who yesterday told the UK parliament the parties in the North would have three weeks after the election to form a government or face going to the polls again.
Meanwhile, Mr Adams said his party was now preparing for an election and would only resume a partnership with its unionist rivals on the basis of "equality and fairness".
"People need to come out in the election if they are for accountability, for transparency, if they are against corruption, for equality and fairness," he said.
"We have come a long distance and have a good way to go yet."