Former Stormont first minister Peter Robinson in election plea to politicians

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Former Stormont first minister Peter Robinson has issued an eve of election message urging Northern Ireland's politicians to step back and avert a headlong rush towards the destruction of devolution.

The ex-Democratic Unionist leader said the parties needed to be careful not to adopt positions that would rule out accommodations following Thursday's snap Assembly poll.

"The structures, however imperfect, are all that stand between Northern Ireland and political isolation and impotence," he said.

"While the election is unstoppable the headlong rush into destruction is not.

"Parties need to take care that the positions they are adopting do not close off sensible options. They should step back, take a breath and ensure there is sufficient space for an agreement to be reached in the calmer times that follow the hustings."

The future of devolution hangs in the balance ahead of the election amid concerns that the UK government will have little choice but to restore direct rule in the weeks ahead.

The local parties have only three weeks after the election to form a new coalition executive. That seems improbable given the multiple disputes involving the two largest parties - the DUP and Sinn Fein - during what has been a divisive campaign.

If the dead-line passes, Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire is legally obliged to call yet another election. But, in those circumstances, the Government may well move to pass emergency legislation to suspend devolution for the first time in 10 years.

Mr Robinson has kept a low public profile since his retirement in 2015 but he took to Facebook on Wednesday to express his concern about the political situation.

"As things stand the road ahead leads inexorably to stalemate," he said.

"The election has pushed parties further apart and if over the next few weeks parties retain a list of red-line demands inflated by electoral enthusiasm it will be impossible to reach agreement in either the short or medium term."

The election was forced in January when Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister - a move that forced First Minister Arlene Foster from post and pulled the plug on the last executive.

Sinn Fein has claimed Mrs Foster's handling of a botched green energy scheme left them no alternative but to bring down the institutions. But the DUP claim the republican party is using the issue as an excuse to press their own united Ireland agenda.

Explaining his decision to speak out, Mr Robinson said his concern for the institutions outweighed his desire for a "quiet retirement".

"The level of peace and stability that has characterised recent years was hard won and involved years of difficult work and endless negotiations," he said.

"There is still so much more to achieve and some distance to travel on our journey towards fully functioning democratic structures and genuine reconciliation but we should not lose sight of that goal.

"The consequences of regression are many and may well be catastrophic. It must, therefore, be the duty of each of our elected representatives to embrace that essential value also enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath - primum non nocere (first, do no harm)."

Mr Robinson said the RHI affair, which has left Stormont with a potential £490 million overspend, did not justify an election.

"There is no question that mistakes were made with the renewable heat scheme - that much everyone agrees - but throughout the world mistakes are made by politicians and government officials without it amounting to a crisis with the potential of bringing down the political institutions," he said.

Days after his resignation, Mr McGuinness retired from frontline politics to deal with serious health problems.

Mr Robinson speculated that if his former Stormont counterpart had been in good health the situation would not have escalated as it did.

"As it is, the more belligerent elements in Sinn Fein have seized their opportunity and are seeking to advance their agenda regardless of imperilling the political structures," he added.

He insisted Arlene Foster has been "harshly" treated, expressing confidence she would be vindicated by the planned public inquiry into the RHI.

He touched upon criticism that has been directed at his party during the campaign for its negative focus on the role of Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams.

"For many unionists the thought of Sinn Fein tricolour-waving victory cavalcades touring the country and Adams crossing the globe purporting to speak for Northern Ireland will be enough to bring them out to the polls and vote for the DUP who alone can keep the top position for unionism," he said.

"For me, the prime concern is that as the largest party Sinn Fein would have a significantly enhanced influence with government in future negotiations."

Writing in his blog, Mr Adams said the DUP's "operation fear" strategy "boils down to scaring the unionist electorate with Sinn Fein".

He said Mr McGuinness's had been the DUP's "bogeyman" in last May's Assembly election.

"With Martin so obviously ill, and Michelle (O'Neill) just new to the job, the DUP decided that this year I would make the perfect bogeyman," he added.

Mr Adams said the electorate would now pass judgment.

"The political parties and leaders will then have a job of work to negotiate an agreement that delivers on the outstanding elements of all of the previous agreements," he wrote.

"Every election is important. But some have a historic significance that resonates for years. This is one of those. The future of the Good Friday Agreement, of the political institutions, and of the principles of equality and respect and parity of esteem that underpin the Agreement, are at grave risk.

"This election is about rights. The right of every citizen, whatever their religion, colour, gender, sexual orientation, to be treated as equals.

"The election is also about making a stand in favour of good governance."