Second Stormont election moves closer as progress stalls in power-sharing talks
A second election in Northern Ireland to coincide with Theresa May's snap Westminster vote is seen as a distinct possibility by the parties involved.
Stormont has been without a power-sharing government since March 2 as the DUP and Sinn Féin struggled to reach a deal to re-establish the administration.
And well-placed sources now fear talks between the parties which are due to resume in the coming days are merely "a box-ticking exercise".
During a phone call with the British Prime Minister last night, Taoiseach Enda Kenny emphasised that a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland should not be contemplated.
And Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan received assurances from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire that legislation will pass through the House of Commons next week to extend the deadline for talks.
However, a source in Dublin noted the decision to call an election shows the British government does not see the situation in Northern Ireland as a priority. In a statement Mr Flanagan said he is "concerned" about the impact of the snap elections.
However, Mr Flanagan said the Irish government will be pushing to avoid a second Assembly election to coincide with the UK vote on June 8.
"The Secretary of State told me that his intention, announced last week, remains unchanged - namely, to bring forward legislation at Westminster in the coming days which will include a provision to allow a Northern Ireland Executive to be formed in early May.
"While this will legislatively facilitate the formation of an Executive, I am conscious of the political reality that all of the parties involved in the talks will now be competing in a General Election and mind-sets will inevitably shift to campaign mode.
"Nevertheless, it is the firm hope of the Irish Government that the talks process can continue and conclude successfully in the coming days"
Mr Flanagan said the interest of the people of Northern Ireland would be best served by avoiding a second election.
"That will be my message in my contacts with the party leaders in Northern Ireland in the coming days and when I travel to Belfast for further discussions on Thursday," he said.
But the fresh election campaign in Northern Ireland, against a backdrop of great political instability, threatens to drive open further divisions between the already-polarised parties.
DUP leader Arlene Foster called it an opportunity for unionists to "unite around a strong DUP that will advocate for them in Parliament".
The DUP could make gains in the General Election - but still lose out overall in terms of its influence in a new House of Commons.
With a good showing,the party could potentially gain South Belfast from the SDLP and take back South Antrim from the Ulster Unionists.
But individual gains could still see the party losing its current leverage on the Government which has such a slim working majority of 17.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill claimed it was a chance for voters to "oppose Brexit and reject Tory cuts and austerity".
The party will be seeking to build on its Assembly campaign success - even though there is no question it will continue its boycott of Westminster.
Ms O'Neill said: "It will be an opportunity for voters to oppose Brexit and reject Tory cuts and austerity.
"It is an opportunity to progress designated status for the North within the EU and for a future based on equality, respect, integrity and unity."
Sinn Féin and the SDLP avoided the opportunity to take political pot-shots at each other, instead maintaining the emphasis on Brexit.