Northern Ireland power-sharing institutions collapse - what happens next?
Northern Ireland is heading for an election after the power-sharing executive imploded over the RHI scandal. Here are the answers to some key questions on how the next weeks and months are likely to play out in Stormont's latest political drama.
What happens now?
While the ruling executive has gone up in smoke, the Assembly is set to limp on for a number of days pending the required Westminster and Royal rubber stamps for dissolving it. Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is expected to make a statement to the House of Commons and the Queen will need to approve an Order of Council. Once those requirements are fulfilled the Assembly will be dissolved and the election campaign will be up and running.
Will the election be like other Assembly polls?
Sort of. The campaign will be of similar length to past elections. What resources the parties will be able to throw at it - after three elections in last three years - is another matter. One crucial difference is the electorate is returning 90 MLAs this time round, not 108. The reduction of the Assembly was due to be implemented at the next scheduled election - in 2021 - but recent events have fast-tracked that reform timetable.
What if the DUP and Sinn Fein are returned as the largest parties?
Barring a seismic redrawing of the electoral landscape, the pre-eminent parties of unionism and nationalism should retain their right to lead a powersharing government. Whether they will take part in such an administration is another matter entirely. A bitter election campaign will do little to resolve the myriad disputes between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Both parties have signalled the need to address their respective issues of concern before re-entering government.
How long have they got to sort it?
After the election, the new Assembly needs to meet within one week. A new executive needs to be in place a further two weeks on from that. If the leading parties decline to nominate first and deputy first ministers within that time-frame, legislation dictates that Mr Brokenshire calls yet another election.
Another election. Are you serious?
While the law as it stands requires another poll, it is debatable whether the UK Government would opt for a step that would surely test the electorate's patience to breaking point. In those circumstances, it is likely devolution would be suspended and Northern Ireland would return to direct rule by Westminster for the first time in 10 years.
Would suspending the institutions be straightforward for the Government?
Not really. The Secretary of State used to have powers to suspend the institutions - a step that was not uncommon during the early years of the peace process. Those powers were removed under the terms of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. The Government would need to pass emergency legislation at Westminster to regain the authority to put Stormont back in cold storage.
If there was a suspension, what would happen then?
A return to direct rule would provide some breathing space for a more substantive talks process to address the issues of contention at the heart of Stormont. How long it would take to strike yet another deal to save the powersharing institutions is anyone's guess.