The North’s strained stalemate exploded in rancour on Thursday when the Stormont’s cabinet-style administration visibly broke into rival factions.
Despite an ultimatum by DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson, a meeting of the Stormont executive failed to take place due to Sinn Féin objections.
The executive has now not met since early June, undermining the credibility of the North’s devolved power-sharing institutions.
Sinn Féin has said meetings cannot take place without DUP support for the implementation of the St Andrew’s Agreement on issues ranging from policing and justice, to the Irish language and education.
The DUP wants more proof that the Provisional IRA’s Army Council has disbanded for good.
Meanwhile, PSNI Chief Hugh Orde said the failure to provide “political top cover” left a vacuum which militant republicans were filling with attacks on the Crown forces.
Highlighting a clear schism within the Executive, Ministers from the unionist parties and the SDLP jointly announced on Thursday that their parties would continue informal cabinet-level discussions without Sinn Féin.
SDLP Minister Margaret Ritchie controversially appeared before the cameras, flanked by the leaders of the two unionist parties, to attack her nationalist rivals in Sinn Féin for not focusing on day-to-day issues.
“People are urgently wanting to know what we can do for them to keep them warm this winter and that is my urgent concern,” she said.
Earlier this week, British prime minister Gordon Brown appeared at the Stormont Assembly and called for a date to be set for the transfer of policing and justice powers, but his speech failed to end the deadlock.
DUP leader and First Minister Peter Robinson said Sinn Féin’s refusal to join in a Cabinet meeting meant cross-border meetings planned with the Dublin government would be cancelled, beginning from today [Friday].
He said the Executive would seek to largely carry out its ministerial functions regardless of Sinn Féin.
“Each of us, if there is not an Executive meeting taking place, I think will look to urgent procedures because we are not in the business of making people outside suffer,” said Mr Robinson.
“Others will have to answer for themselves.
“The Executive should be meeting, that is what we are elected to do, that is what we are legally required to do.”
Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said he had made proposals to ease the economic pressure on households, as well as procedures to implement them without an Executive meeting.
He said his party wanted the North’s Government to operate on the basis of equality or “partnership” between unionists and nationalists
“We do have a situation where the Democratic Unionist Party are in default of the St Andrews Agreement,” he said.
“If Sinn Féin had been in default, for example by not giving our full support to policing institutions in the North, they would have all been lining up to beat us over the head.”
He added: “There is a real responsibility to ensure that the tail that is wagging the DUP dog is put in its place.
“There is a responsibility to show leadership. We are absolutely convinced that there are people in the DUP, and indeed others, who are hostile to these institutions which Sinn Féin participate in.”
The St Andrews Agreement of 2006 earmarked May this year as a target date for the devolution of policing and justice responsibility, but the DUP has continued to insist that it does not believe the conditions are yet right for the move.
“I think what people will see on their TV screens tonight is a minority nationalist party sandwiched between two unionist parties,” said Mr McGuinness.
“And they will remind themselves of the speech that Mark Durkan made in Oxford which was clearly anti-power-sharing, which was clearly advocating a return to unionist majority rule.”