The outgoing DUP First Minister Arlene Foster has stated that she is open for discussions with Sinn Féin in the next few days, following the collapse of the Stormont Assembly.
Ms Foster also said that she hopes that the process of initiating an inquiry into the controversial renewable heat incentive (RHI) scheme, which has become known as “cash for ash”, could start by the end of this week.
As Northern Ireland faces the prospect of Assembly elections in the coming weeks following Martin McGuinness’s resignation as Deputy First Minister over Ms Foster’s response to the “cash-for-ash” controversy, Ms Foster told the BBC that she was willing to participate in discussions with Sinn Féin on the current crisis.
The RHI scheme, introduced when Ms Foster was minister for enterprise, was supposed to offer a proportion of the cost businesses had to pay to use eco-friendly boilers, but the subsidy tariffs were set too high.
Without a cap, it ended up paying out significantly more than the price of the fuel.
Sinn Féin had been demanding that Ms Foster stand aside pending an investigation of the RHI scheme, which could result in an overspend by the Executive of up to £490 million (about €600 million) over the next 20 years.
However, a visibly frail and ill Mr McGuinness announced his resignation at Stormont Castle on Monday afternoon, a move that under the joint terms of the office necessitated that DUP leader Arlene Foster also ceases to act as First Minister, although she will still have some minor non-executive functions.
Theoretically, the parties in the North have seven days to resolve their differences before the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has to call a snap poll.
While Sinn Féin could nominate a successor to Mr McGuinness between now and Monday, Mr McGuinness was adamant this would not happen. He called for snap elections to be held instead.
Earlier on Tuesday, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said Ms Foster’s position on the issue had not been tenable and that if a politician from any other jurisdiction oversaw a loss to the exchequer of half a billion pounds sterling they would step down.
Mr Adams said Sinn Féin wanted to be friends with the DUP but that the relationship had to be on the basis of equality and fairness.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald attacked the DUP, saying that the party were “people who assume they have a divine right to govern and that they can thumb their nose at their partners in government and, by extension, at the general public”.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny also spoke to British prime minister Theresa May about the events in Northern Ireland on Tuesday. The conversation lasted 15 minutes.
Both expressed their concern about the implications of Mr McGuinness’s resignation.
A Government spokesman said the two leaders “agreed the situation is very serious.
“They agreed that the two governments would work closely over the coming period.”
The spokesman said Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Mr Brokenshire would be seeking to find a way forward before an election is triggered.
Ms May is due to visit Dublin at the end of the month.
Speaking on Tuesday, Ms Foster said that she has been “disgracefully maligned” over the “cash for ash” scheme, while defending her position following Martin McGuinness’s resignation.
In a live-broadcast press conference, she accused Sinn Féin of seeking to define discussions on the issue in their own terms, and said such an approach could not be in the interest of successfully resolving the issue.
She said her party was willing to take part in any discussions “to see whether a way forward can be found.
“We will take our case to the electorate if necessary,” she said. “I have never taken the views of electorate for granted.”
She said that the people had given her party a mandate last May, and that she remained committed to representing “the best interests of Northern Ireland”.
“It may seem all hope is lost,” she said, adding that she was optimistic there could be “better and brighter days ahead”.
She said that “it is of the utmost importance that the truth comes out” in relation to the RHI schene.
She also described Mr McGuinness’s resignation as “not principled”.
In the House of Commons on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Brokenshire said an Assembly election in the North was now “highly likely”.
Earlier, Northern Ireland shadow secretary Dave Anderson said political parties in the North should figure out a way to avoid an election.
Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, Mr Anderson said the parties should “just keep talking to see if there is another way out of this”.
Mr Anderson said he was very saddened by the resignation of Mr McGuinness.
“This is bad news. I understand the deep sense of frustration, but I don’t think this is in anyone’s interest.”
Mr Anderson said if there was a snap election then eight weeks would be lost and at the end the issue would still be unresolved.
“The DUP have to be convinced that they have a wider responsibility, not just to themselves and Northern Ireland, but also to the UK as a whole.”
On Tuesday, Ulster Unionist Party leader Mike Nesbitt was critical of Mr McGuinness’s decision to resign and told RTÉ that Sinn Féin was letting the DUP off the hook.
He said he would prefer if Sinn Féin had continued to hold Ms Foster to account, set up an inquiry and brought in legislation to stop the haemorrhaging of money through the “cash-for-ash” scheme.
The Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said the proposal by Ms Foster to hold a public inquiry into the RHI scheme was “too little, too late”.
“This is now a matter of the former First Minister attempting to cover her embarrassment ahead of a potential election,” said Ms Long.
Speaking on the BBC, Sinn Féin MLA Michelle O’Neill said the DUP’s lack of respect was one of the main reasons Mr McGuinness resigned.
She told BBC Radio Ulster that she had never seen public outrage such as in recent weeks over the RHI scheme.
“Sinn Féin will not tolerate such incompetence and corruption,” she said.
However, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said the reason the Deputy First Minister stepped down was because the British government “would not play [Sinn Féin’s] games” of putting British soldiers in the dock.
DUP MLA Jeffrey Donaldson also took aim at Sinn Féin, saying power-sharing in the North is “half dead” following Martin McGuinness’s resignation.
“I’m not sure that power-sharing can be restored now - what Sinn Féin did yesterday has destroyed any confidence that would have existed between the two parties,” he said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
Additional reporting: PA