Talks to save Northern Ireland's floundering powersharing government cannot have preconditions attached, Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness has warned.
Amid uncertainty over whether one-to-one meetings in Belfast involving the Executive parties and the British and Irish governments will progress to round-table negotiations, Stormont's Deputy First Minister said if full-scale talks fail, or do not proceed, then the next logical step is a snap election.
The Executive is teetering on the verge of collapse as a result of a crisis sparked by a murder linked to the IRA.
The Ulster Unionists have quit the mandatory coalition government and the Democratic Unionists have pulled four of their five ministers out of the administration.
UUP leader Mike Nesbitt has insisted negotiations can only proceed if Sinn Fein stops denying the IRA exists.
The republican party has vehemently rejected the assessment of police chiefs and the two governments that structures of the IRA are still in operation.
Mr McGuinness said: "I do think that as we enter into these discussions that it is very, very important that we do so on the basis of no preconditions.
"And I want to see, and am working for, talks to take place with a view to a successful outcome. But if talks are not going to take place and if talks do take place and there is no successful outcome then, in my view, the next logical step is to an election, and that is my very firm and strong view. Our party has no fear whatsoever of an election."
The Sinn Fein veteran said the choice for the parties boiled down to achieving success in the talks or facing the electorate at the polls.
"That is the stark choice facing all of the parties in this process," he said.
Earlier, Mr Nesbitt said Sinn Fein's attitude to whether the IRA is still in business would "kill or cure" powersharing in Northern Ireland.
He made the assessment as he emerged from his party's bilateral meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers at Stormont House.
Mr Nesbitt urged against round-table talks until Sinn Fein's stance had been established.
"We have cautioned against holding a round-table discussion at this time until the Secretary of State gets a feel of where others, particularly Sinn Fein, are with regard to the way forward," he said.
The latest crisis to beset the faltering administration was sparked by the murder of Kevin McGuigan.
Police have said current members of the IRA were involved in last month's shooting of Mr McGuigan in a suspected revenge attack for the murder of former IRA commander Gerard "Jock" Davison in Belfast three months earlier.
The disclosures about the IRA have heaped pressure on Sinn Fein to explain why the police assess that the supposedly defunct paramilitary organisation is still in existence.
Sinn Fein insists the IRA has gone away and has accused the two unionist parties of contriving a crisis for electoral gain.