The North’s faltering power-sharing Executive has lurched towards another crisis after the Assembly voted down a bid to implement welfare reforms in the region.
The fall of the already long-delayed proposed legislation, prompted by Sinn Féin and SDLP opposition, leaves the stumbling administration facing a budgetary black hole estimated at around £600m.
Unless political leaders can agree a lasting deal on welfare in the coming days and weeks, there is the very real prospect of a senior civil servant stepping in to take over departmental spends later in the summer, under tight financial constraints.
Such a scenario, where the parties are effectively relieved of spending responsibility, would undoubtedly increase the chances of one of the main partners in the Executive – the DUP and Sinn Féin – walking away and collapsing the institutions.
In the absence of any local accommodation, the Democratic Unionists have suggested another alternative option – namely, the UK Government stepping in to implement welfare legislation over the head of the devolved five-party administration.
But Downing Street has shown no appetite for such a move, which would also likely be a resigning matter for Sinn Féin.