DUP warns the whole system of power-sharing may have to be re-negotiated
A prolonged period of direct rule in on the cards, a senior DUP figure has warned.
Jeffrey Donaldson also said his party might now push for a voluntary system of government at Stormont to replace the current mandatory power-sharing coalition.
"The prospect of a mandatory coalition being restored has been greatly diminished," the Lagan Valley MP said.
His comments led Labour's former shadow secretary of state Vernon Coaker to ask the Government for assurances that it did not intend to reintroduce direct rule.
Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire replied that any talk of suspending the Assembly was "entirely premature" and "unhelpful". Mr Donaldson said the bitter political row between his party and Sinn Fein was unlikely to be resolved without a lengthy talks process following any Assembly election in the coming months.
Speaking on RTE, he also questioned whether the existing mandatory coalition 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.
"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."
Mr Donaldson's comments came as TUV leader Jim Allister said mandatory coalition should be rejected by all unionists. "Whether from the standpoint of those unionists, like TUV, who always rejected mandatory coalition or those who participated in mandatory coalition, like UUP and DUP, surely all can now see and agree that it does not and cannot work. This should be the common ground of unionism moving forward," he argued.
"Those who participated in it can legitimately say they tried.
"But the realisation for us all now is, surely, that it will not work, particularly now that Sinn Fein is upping the ante and demanding that it is operated in their way or not at all.
"Thus a defining moment has arrived for unionism.
"We have to decide if it is the humiliating path of seeking to prop up an unworkable system to which Sinn Fein has demonstrated no commitment, or making voluntary coalition, maybe with the underwrite of a manageable weighted majority requirement, the agreed and only path to executive devolution."
Meanwhile, Alliance leader Naomi Long said Arlene Foster's call for an inquiry into RHI was "too little, too late".
She said Mrs Foster had the opportunity to initiate an independent inquiry under the Inquiries Act and step aside last month, but her failure to do so had directly led to the current Stormont crisis.
"This is now a matter of the former First Minister attempting to cover her embarrassment ahead of a potential election," said Mrs Long.
"However, I believe it won't wash with the public, who will see it for what it is.
"It is questionable whether Arlene Foster even has the power to initiate such an inquiry now. She is no longer a minister, and even if she was, it is now a cross-departmental matter and would require Executive agreement to instigate it. The only person able to do so at this point is the Secretary of State, and he continues to refuse."