The clock is ticking on dissolution of the devolved institutions, with Northern Ireland secretary of state James Brokenshire set to call an election at the start of next week.
The DUP has called for fresh negotiations to avoid a “brutal” contest but Sinn Féin insisted the matter should be placed before the people.
On Thursday, a Democratic Unionist minister reversed his controversial decision to cut an Irish-language initiative in what some have interpreted as an olive branch.
After meeting the parties, Mr Brokenshire said: “The reality remains, the high probability remains, that we are heading towards an election.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan was also in Belfast to try and 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.”
A scandal over a botched green energy scheme which threatens to leave the taxpayer £490m (€561m) out of pocket, precipitated the resignation of Sinn Féin’s ailing deputy first minister Martin McGuinness on Monday.
It is a joint office so he took first minister Arlene Foster, who established the eco-boilers scheme, with him and has doomed the institutions to fall unless Sinn Féin nominates a successor next Monday — a step republicans have vowed not to take.
Sinn Féin Stormont 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 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.”
Mr Brokenshire said he did not want to pre-judge what the outcome of the vote might be and warned an election could be divisive.
DUP communities minister Paul Givan’s decision to cut a £50,000 bursary to pay for children to visit Irish-speaking — Gaeltacht — communities infuriated Sinn Féin and has been seen as a key factor in the republican party’s decision to pull the plug on the power-sharing institutions.
In a tweet on Thursday morning, Mr Givan said: “My decision on the Líofa Bursary Scheme was not a political decision.
“I have now identified the necessary funding to advance this scheme.”
The development has been interpreted by some as a DUP olive branch to Sinn Féin.
Mr Flanagan said: “There is a window of opportunity, albeit extremely narrow. I believe we are facing into an electoral contest and the Irish Government is very conscious of the need to protect the institutions and also the integrity of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.”
Meanwhile, it has emerged that not implementing welfare reform has cost the public purse in Northern Ireland £173m. The money was deducted from the block grant which funds public services between 2013 and last year because changes introduced in the rest of the UK were not brought into Northern Ireland.
Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said the cash was used to protect the most vulnerable from cuts.
Ulster Unionist Assembly member Andy Allen said: “This is £173m that should have been spent on our schools, hospitals and roads.
“Instead, it was lost to the Northern Ireland public purse as a result of the incompetence and inability of both the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree a position on welfare reform. It is an absolute outrage that as we were being fined, charities were laying off staff and domiciliary care places for the elderly were being slashed due to a shortfall in public funds.”
Extra money provided by Stormont to make up for cuts to the overall welfare budget at Westminster was a key plank in an earlier agreement to save power-sharing. It had been a central Sinn Féin demand.
The finance minister told Mr Allen the reduction to Executive spending was £173m. Mr Ó Muilleoir added: “Of course, this must be viewed in the context of the protection it provided for some of the most vulnerable in society by ensuring no financial loss was suffered by those in receipt of welfare payments.”
The looming implosion of the power-sharing institutions following Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy first minister means the ministerial executive is unable to meet to sign off on further payments.
Stormont ministers are at odds over whether cash to support those losing out under the government’s “bedroom tax” can still be distributed amid the devolution crisis.
Otherwise known as the social sector size criteria, the government welfare reform on housing benefit will be introduced in Northern Ireland next month.
While Communities Minister Paul Givan’s department has stated that Executive approval is required, Mr Ó Muilleoir has insisted otherwise.
The Sinn Féin minister published a letter from his senior civil servant, David Sterling.
Mr Sterling wrote: “I am content having taken legal advice that from a legal perspective the 2016 Budget Act provides sufficient legislative authority to make Bedroom Tax mitigation payments. This will cover any expenditure up until the end of March 2017.” After that, separate pre-existing legislation will be sufficient to ensure payments continue, Mr Sterling added.