Parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly have voted to reject a Democratic Unionist proposal to adjourn the power-sharing institutions - a move that brings suspension or collapse a step closer.
First Minister Peter Robinson has said his ministers will resign - forcing the fall of Stormont power sharing - if his proposal failed or the British Government does not suspend the institutions.
It follows a murder linked to members of the IRA which has rocked the political institutions.
The Democratic Unionists have sought suspension or adjournment of the Assembly until intensive cross-party talks on the paramilitarism crisis are completed and have halted meetings of the ministerial Executive.
Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists voted against the DUP adjournment proposal, which was supported by the cross-community Alliance Party.
The decision throws the spotlight on the Government and whether it intends to enact emergency legislation to suspend the institutions. Without suspension, Mr Robinson has pledged to walk out by the end of the day.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said: “The decision of the (Assembly’s) business committee is a very, very clear democratic reiteration of the integrity of these institutions and of the need and the wish for these institutions to continue the work which we were all elected to do on behalf of citizens in this state and across this island.”
Mr Robinson issued his ultimatum on Wednesday after the arrest of three senior republicans, including Sinn Fein’s northern chairman Bobby Storey, over the fatal shooting of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan. The men remain in custody.
Police have said current members of the IRA were involved in last month’s shooting of Mr McGuigan in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard “Jock” Davison in Belfast three months earlier.
The revelations about the IRA have heaped pressure on Sinn Fein to explain why the supposedly defunct paramilitary organisation is still in existence.
The Executive cannot function without the DUP, the region’s largest unionist party. However, if the party resigns its ministerial posts the institutions will not fall immediately, as the party will be given seven days to renominate ministers. If no renominations materialise then the power-sharing Executive will collapse, prompting the prospect of snap elections or a lengthy spell of direct rule.
The Ulster Unionists have already resigned from the Executive, claiming trust in Sinn Fein has been destroyed, but unlike the DUP they did not have the electoral weight to bring the institutions down by leaving them.
Irish premier Taoiseach Enda Kenny had urged the SDLP not to vote against adjournment in an eleventh hour meeting in Dublin this morning. However, the nationalist party, which was one of the architects of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, ultimately decided to oppose the move.
SDLP leader Dr Alasdair McDonnell said: “Adjournment would not have added anything, an adjournment would have been there and when the adjournment was over we would still have been drifting toward suspension. The adjournment was not the solution and we looked at this long and hard.”
Alliance leader David Ford heavily criticised the UUP and SDLP and accused them of betraying the past generations of their parties which helped forge the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
“John Hume and David Trimble (former SDLP and UUP leaders) sacrificed their parties for the sake of the peace process,” he said.
“Today the current leadership of the Ulster Unionists and SDLP has sacrificed the peace process. For what?”
Prime Minister David Cameron is “gravely concerned” about the situation and was phoning Mr Robinson and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers to discuss developments, said Downing Street.
Mr Cameron’s official spokeswoman said: “The Prime Minister is gravely concerned about the situation. As he was saying in the House yesterday, we want to see all politicians in Northern Ireland working together to build a better future for the country and working to fulfil its great potential. We have been encouraging talks between the parties so they can work through their issues.”
Asked whether the PM was considering suspending the Assembly, the spokeswoman said: “There are obviously now different people calling for different things, and the Prime Minister’s calls with the Secretary of State and the First Minister are an opportunity for us to consider what steps should be taken next.”