Stormont crisis: British and Irish governments accept Northern Ireland election likely amid turmoil
The British and Irish governments have conceded a snap election is increasingly likely in Northern Ireland as Stormont's power-sharing administration heads for collapse.
The clock is ticking on dissolution of the devolved institutions, with Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire set to order a poll at the start of next week.
The Democratic Unionists have called for fresh negotiations to avoid a "brutal" contest but Sinn Fein insisted the matter should be placed before the people.
On Thursday a DUP minister reversed his controversial decision to cut an Irish language initiative.
Some interpreted Paul Givan's move as an olive branch to Sinn Fein, but the minister said his motivation was to "neutralise" republican attempts to make it an election issue.
Mr Brokenshire said: "The reality remains, the high probability remains, that we are heading towards an election."
He said he did not want to pre-judge what the outcome of the vote might be and warned an election could be divisive.
Charlie Flanagan, Irish foreign affairs minister, was also in Belfast to try to avert a poll.
He said: "I believe an election is much closer. The Secretary of State on Monday, in my view, will be left with no choice but to dissolve the Assembly and announce an election."
Mr Flanagan said there was only a slight hope the administration could be saved. "There is a window of opportunity, albeit extremely narrow," he said.
A scandal over a botched green energy scheme that threatens to leave the taxpayer £490 million out of pocket precipitated the resignation of Sinn Fein's ailing deputy first minister Martin McGuinness on Monday.
It is a joint office so he took first minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster, who established the eco-boilers scheme, with him and has doomed the institutions to fall unless Sinn Fein nominates a successor next Monday - a step republicans have vowed not to take.
Sinn Fein Stormont health minister Michelle O'Neill said: "Martin made his position very clear when he placed his resignation in the Assembly on Monday. We now need to move to an election.
"We now believe, on the back of this latest scandal of the renewable heat incentive (RHI), and a whole litany of issues in relation to equality, that it is now over to the public to have their say and to place their vote."
Later Ms O'Neill warned plans being developed by her department to cut hospital waiting lists in Northern Ireland were now on ice due to turmoil in the executive.
Mr Givan's decision to cut a £50,000 bursary to pay for children to visit Irish-speaking communities - the Gaeltacht - infuriated Sinn Fein and has been seen as a key factor in the republican party's decision to pull the plug on the power-sharing institutions.
Explaining his U-turn, Mr Givan said: "I will not allow Sinn Fein to use the Irish language as a political weapon."
Despite the reversal, hundreds of Irish language activists gathered outside the minister's departmental offices in Belfast to protest about the DUP's attitude.
The DUP communities minister has also been involved in a wrangle with Sinn Fein finance minister Mairtin O Muilleoir on whether Stormont mitigation payments for those losing out under the Government's so-called "bedroom tax" can be distributed amid the crisis.
Mr Givan had insisted the approval of the now-paralysed executive was required - a claim Mr Muilleoir disputed. Both issued contradictory legal advice from their departments.
On Thursday evening Mr Givan said he would press ahead with the payments by by-passing the executive and bringing legislation directly before the Assembly, potentially as early as next week.
Belfast Telegraph Digital