Sinn Fein and DUP remain at loggerheads as Stormont stalemate goes into third year
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said she is ready to appoint ministers to a new Executive immediately and has accused Sinn Fein of holding Northern Ireland hostage.
But speaking on the second anniversary of the collapse of power-sharing, Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said she was hopeful devolution could be restored - while blaming the DUP for the stalemate.
The Executive collapsed on January 9, 2017 with the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. Northern Ireland currently holds the world record for the longest period without a sitting government,
It has effectively been ruled by civil servants, with the UK Government refusing to introduce direct rule because of nationalist opposition.
A draft deal was reached in talks to restore devolution last February but the DUP pulled the plug at the 11th hour as it felt the agreement could not be sold to its grassroots.
An Irish Language Act remains a key Sinn Fein demand.
Mrs Foster last night said: "As the nominating officer for the DUP I stand ready to appoint ministers and restore the Executive immediately. Sinn Fein's boycott of the Assembly has punished the people of Northern Ireland, who want decisions taken on health, education and the vital public services which impact their lives.
"The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than having party political preconditions blocking the reform of our health service, preventing legislation coming forward on domestic violence and holding up vital infrastructure projects.
"All parties should demonstrate they are serious about restoring devolution and I would be happy to sit down with all the party leaders immediately to start that process."
Mrs O'Neill said she was optimistic devolution could be restored "providing it was on the basis of equality".
She added: "It's exactly two years since Martin called time on the disrespect, discrimination and the lack of integrity which had made Stormont unsustainable.
"Martin resigned as a last resort and he did so with a heavy heart. But he knew it was the right thing to do in order to fix what was broken. That is as true today as it was then.
"Through all the political breakdown and rancour of the past two years, it can be tempting to believe that the prospects of restoring the Assembly and the Executive in the North are as remote as ever.
"But I believe there is hope for optimism."
She called on the DUP to end its "denial of rights" and show respect to Irish culture, women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities.
She said: "The RHI Inquiry has also exposed the crucial need for reform of how the Assembly and Executive operates in future. Never, ever again can we see scandals like Red Sky, Nama and RHI. Sinn Fein wants an Assembly which operates differently from what went before. We want to usher in a new kind of politics, which is progressive, respectful, and has integrity."
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said Northern Ireland had experienced "two wasted years with a total abdication of political responsibility by Sinn Fein and the DUP".
He said both parties had "engaged in a zero sum game", with ordinary people the losers.
Mr Swann called for talks involving the five main parties to begin immediately, and for Secretary of State Karen Bradley to introduce direct rule in the absence of devolution.
He said recent rhetoric from Sinn Fein and the DUP indicated they were trying to sectarianise May's council elections.
"They are feeding off each other in a race to the bottom," he added.
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the second anniversary of the Assembly's collapse was a "stark reminder" of the need to find a resolution.
He hoped the length of the political vacuum would focus minds and encourage the start of a talks process.
"We are living in politically unprecedented times. The price of political stalemate, though always high, is right now incalculable. We can wait no longer," he added.
Alliance leader Naomi Long MLA said the onus was on Mrs Bradley to inject urgency into talks to get devolution delivering again for people.
She said she had written to other party leaders to request meetings to seek a way forward.
"Continued drift is not acceptable either to MLAs or, more importantly, the public," she said.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the present Stormont system was doomed to failure "because it requires at the heart of government a party, Sinn Fein, which isn't there to make Northern Ireland work".
If Stormont wasn't reformed it must be shut down as "British rule from London is preferable to Sinn Fein rule from Stormont/Connolly House", he argued.
Green leader Clare Bailey said while the pantomime season was ending, the "farcical situation of two years without a functioning devolved government" continued here.
She said Mrs Bradley filled "the role of an absentee landlord" striking a strangely upbeat note "when she drops into the jurisdiction".
Ms Bailey called for a fresh approach and said "civic society and new voices" could inject positivity.