Britain and the Republic of Ireland sought to calm Northern Ireland's political crisis on Friday by urging Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists to preserve a power-sharing government that ended decades of sectarian violence.
The British province's autonomous administration is on the brink of collapse after a murder linked to former members of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army (IRA) prompted its first minister, Peter Robinson, to resign alongside all but one of his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) members.
The power-sharing assembly was set up under the terms of 1998’s Good Friday Agreement, a peace deal that ushered in the end of three- decades of hostiles commonly known as the Troubles. The tit-for-tat killings between Catholic Irish nationalists, who want the province to unite with Ireland, and Protestant unionists who want to remain withont the U.K., left 3,600 people dead.
Republic of Ireland Prime Minister Enda Kenny cautioned that there was only a "limited opportunity" to avert the collapse of the power-sharing administration.
"If they [the administration] were to collapse, it could be a very long time before you get back to a situation where you have what you might call normal running of an executive or Assembly," Kenny told Irish national broadcaster RTE on Friday.
"This can be avoided, but I think it needs a realistic appraisal by people who have had very harsh things to say about each other and where there are clear, strong differences of opinion. But you have to look at the bigger picture."
Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, a party that is closely associated to the IRA and refered to by many as the paramilitary organization’s political wing, has said a stalemate would create a vacuum that would be exploited by violent elements.
The last time the parliament was suspended, in 2002, it took five years for the rival parties from the two communities to agree to sit together again.
Britain and Ireland said talks between the parties to try to avert another breakdown would resume on Monday.
However, the continued existence of paramilitary organizations more than a decade after they were supposed to have been disbanded has stoked emotion on both sides of the divide.
Robinson avoided automatically triggering an election by naming Arlene Foster, the only minister from his Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who did not step down on Thursday, as acting first minister.
Although she can hold this interim position for up to six weeks, the province's largest pro-British party only has until next Thursday to fill its vacant ministerial positions and avoid an early election, which would otherwise be due in May.
London's Northern Ireland secretary, Theresa Villiers, spoke of a "complete breakdown in working relationships" in the province, while the leader of the junior Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) said the main parties "deeply, deeply" disliked and distrusted each other.
The crisis erupted when police said they suspected the murder of ex-IRA member Kevin McGuigan in Belfast on Aug. 12 might have involved some members of the IRA, a group that is supposed to have disbanded.
Police say the IRA is still active in some form, though no longer engaged in terrorism. Police detained a senior member of Sinn Fein, Bobby Storey, in relation to the killing on Wednesday but later released him without charge.
The DUP's Foster said paramilitary activity linked to Sinn Fein had to be addressed in the talks while UUP leader Mike Nesbitt said an admission by Sinn Fein that a demilitarized IRA exists would be a "game-changer in terms of trust".
However Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams, who has always denied membership of the IRA, said everyone else was wrong in claiming that the IRA still existed and said his party would not allow the issue to be a pre-condition of talks.
"I wish we weren't at this situation," Villiers told BBC TV.
"The important thing now is to try and find a way to repair those working relationships, to deal with issues around paramilitaries, to get the Stormont House agreement implemented, also essential, and the way to do that is cross-party talks."
When asked if she backed the establishment of an independent authority that would look at the issue of decommissioning weapons and disbanding paramilitary organizations, Villiers said it was "one of the most credible ideas".
"The IRA still exists," Villiers said. "There are some organization structures, they're there for a radically different purpose than in the past and the IRA is not involved in terrorism."