Power-sharing in Northern Ireland hangs by a thread after the Democratic Unionists vowed to collapse the institutions if they are not suspended to deal with the fallout from an IRA murder.
First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson issued the ultimatum following the arrest of three senior republicans, including Sinn Fein’s northern chairman Bobby Storey, over the shooting of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan.
Mr Robinson said if other parties in the Assembly did not back the suspension move in a crunch vote today, or if the Government did not act to suspend proceedings in the absence of that vote, then he and fellow ministers would resign immediately.
With the DUP unlikely to garner sufficient support for suspension among the other parties, and the Government as yet showing no inclination to legislate to suspend the institutions, the collapse of power-sharing today is a very real prospect.
Sinn Fein said Prime Minister David Cameron has told the party he will not suspend the Assembly.
Mr Robinson said: “The DUP has made it clear it will not be involved in business as usual.
“Other parties must now step up to the mark and stop the Assembly from proceeding as if nothing has happened.
“We have attempted to create the space for these matters to be dealt with, but if others want the Assembly to function normally in spite of Sinn Fein’s position, we will have reached the point where, as a last resort, we will take this final step.”
The police have said current members of the IRA were involved in the shooting of Mr McGuigan in Belfast last month – 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 Ulster Unionists have already resigned from the Executive, claiming trust in Sinn Fein has been destroyed.
While the exit of one of the minor partners in the five-party coalition did not bring a collapse, if the DUP follows suit the institutions will fall automatically.
The DUP wants the Assembly to be suspended until the McGuigan crisis is resolved.
The party will ask for a special meeting of the Assembly’s business committee to convene today to vote on suspension.
If the committee does not vote for suspension, the focus will then shift to Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, who could legislate to suspend the devolved administration.
Mr Robinson said Ms Villiers had not shown any inclination to take such action in her public comments to date.
He said if suspension does not occur he and his ministerial colleagues will walk away from the administration immediately.
Sinn Fein has claimed competition for electoral support between the Ulster Unionists and Democratic Unionists was driving the crisis.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness branded those involved in the murder of Mr McGuigan “criminals” who were “no friends” of his party.
He accused the DUP and UUP of a failure of leadership. He said their actions were “foolhardy, foolish and totally devoid of the quality of leadership that is required”.
“The demand, the ultimatum, that has been issued that the institutions be adjourned Sinn Fein is opposed to,” he said.
“We are not going to jump to the tune of the inter-party rivalry that is being played out among both unionist parties at this time and I think it would be a grave mistake for the British Government to suspend these institutions.
“I think it would send a very negative message and would be grist to the mill of those who in the past have tried to plunge us back to the past.
“I have spoken in recent days to the British Government and I have spoken to the Taoiseach (Enda Kenny) this afternoon.
“David Cameron told me he would not suspend the institutions. The Taoiseach told me this afternoon he was totally opposed to the suspension of the institutions.
“So I think what is required over the course of the next number of hours and into tomorrow is a period of reflection for those who are involved in this inter-party rivalry.”
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said his party’s position had been vindicated.
“There is one issue here – the fact that the IRA still exists and Sinn Fein are in denial,” he said.
“So there is only one fix and I cannot supply it; the DUP cannot supply it, for all their bluster. The only person who can supply the fix is Gerry Adams.
“Gerry Adams has to admit the IRA exists, with a structure.
“Without that, talks of adjournments and suspensions and talks – it’s all bluster.
“It’s down to Gerry Adams to tell the truth.”