Sinn Fein supports budget plan
Fears of an imminent crash of power-sharing in Northern Ireland have receded somewhat after Sinn Fein backed a budget plan that pushes the crunch point further down the tracks.
The republican party has offered "conditional support" to a spending plan, dubbed by some as the "fantasy budget", that commits the Stormont Executive to a £600 million overspend for the rest of the financial year.
The Sinn Fein move does not bring a resolution to a huge political row over welfare reform implementation any closer but is designed to give local politicians more time to resolve their differences.
If Sinn Fein had voted against the Budget Bill at its consideration stage in the Assembly today it would have triggered a chain of events that would have forced a senior civil servant to take over spending powers from ministers in the five-party Executive next month.
Such an extraordinary measure would undoubtedly have put the very future of power-sharing at serious risk.
The majority of the £600 million in-year shortfall is due to the failure by local politicians to implement December's Stormont House Agreement - a stalemate caused by Sinn Fein's refusal to introduce the UK Government's welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
The rest relates to other departmental budgetary pressures that have emerged since the budget was first struck at the start of the year.
Democratic Unionist Finance Minister Arlene Foster is seeking approval for the second half of January's original budget, not factoring in the funding black holes, in the hope that a resolution to the welfare deadlock can be found later in the financial year.
While the Executive struck its budget in January, the Assembly must vote twice a year to secure the legal authority to spend the money.
The first vote released 45% of the budget and Mrs Foster is seeking Assembly backing for the remaining 55%.
Sinn Fein's position was crucial and it had the Assembly weight to kill the spending plan today.
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the decision to back the Budget Bill was made by his party's ruling body - the Ard Chomhairle - yesterday in Co Kildare.
"There is a very strong view on the Ard Chomhairle that the present situation we are dealing with is unsustainable," said the veteran Sinn Fein chief.
"That said, in the context of the present situation in relation to the Budget Bill we will be giving conditional support to this Budget Bill today.
"The purpose of that is to create a space which hopefully will see a resolution of the difficulties that we face in relation to putting in place a sustainable and workable budget, and also see the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.
"This is about creating a space. It's about trying to resolve the difficulties and it is about recognising there are huge challenges ahead in that regard.
"That's the story today - hopefully people will recognise, particularly both governments and others, their responsibilities in terms of resolving these matters and will be prepared to work positively and constructively with us in the time ahead to crunch down on issues that have been creating all sorts of difficulties for this administration over the course of the recent while."
The 2015/16 budget was shaped when the Stormont House deal between the British and Irish governments and the five Executive parties was still on track.
Since then the welfare element of the accord has been stymied by a Sinn Fein/SDLP veto - a logjam that has put the rest of the measures contained in the deal on hold.
If the budget is agreed but there is no resolution to the Stormont House Agreement impasse, the Executive's coffers will effectively run dry well before the end of the financial year next March.