NI leaders condemn Cameron’s cash offer

Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron

The Prime Minister has said no deal has been possible between Stormont’s parties.

He said he had offered a package of financial measures if a deal had been agreed.

He said this would amount to around £1bn.

But no agreement has been forthcoming.

If a deal is agreed in the future, he said he will make the financial “firepower” available.

There was massive criticism of the Prime Minister from Sinn Fein.

John O’Dowd had referred to him as a “penny-pinching accountant”.

And on Friday morning, just as Mr Cameron was addressing a press conference along with Irish Premier Enda Kenny, wrote on Twitter: “2 Govts exiting after most amateurish ham fisted episode I have ever been involved in.”

Martin McGuinness said this morning that they had been “distinctly underwhelmed by his generosity”.

The cash touted was not “new money”, he said.

And he added that if no deal is reached before Christmas there is little prospect of an agreement being reached afterwards.

But Northern Ireland’s political leaders heavily criticised the terms of the financial package offered to the devolved Executive by the Prime Minister.

David Cameron left Belfast today after a night of marathon negotiations pledging £1 billion of extra spending powers for the power-sharing administration if ministers could forge an agreement on the budgetary and legacy issues that continue to destabilise the institutions.

Stormont’s First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness have both questioned the credibility of Mr Cameron’s offer, insisting hardly any new money was on the table.

As well as long-standing disputes over flags, parades and the toxic legacy of the past, the five parties in the power-sharing coalition are trying to achieve consensus on budgetary problems facing the devolved institutions, particularly the impasse over the non-implementation of the UK Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland, due to Sinn Fein opposition.

It is understood the majority of the Government’s proposed financial package relates to extending greater flexibility to the Executive to draw down and borrow funds.

Democratic Unionist leader Mr Robinson said the offer had to be improved.

“In terms of the package from the Prime Minister I don’t think it was adequate,” he said. “I think if he wants to bribe us, to bribe us with our own money comes a bit short of what’s required.”

Sinn Fein veteran Mr McGuinness said: “Whatever you have been told by the British prime minister David Cameron, there was no credible financial package offered to the Executive ministers to allow us to combat the austerity agenda that this British government has been inflicting on us over the course of the last four and half years.”

While critical of Mr Cameron’s offer, Mr Robinson also claimed the Executive had been unable to test the Prime Minister’s bottom line as Sinn Fein’s stance on welfare reform had undermined their negotiating position.

“I don’t believe we sufficiently challenged the Prime Minister on what his bottom line was on financial issues and we did not do that because we had not ourselves been able to complete agreement on other aspects of the financial issues, namely the matter of welfare reform and I think the Prime Minister would have had more give in him if he had seen that was going to be resolved,” he said.

Mr Cameron and Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny both held discussions with the Executive’s five parties through yesterday and into the early hours in an effort to forge a deal.

Leaving Stormont House, Mr Cameron said: “We have made good progress overnight and today but a deal is not going to be possible today.”

The Prime Minister said “intensive work” needed to be done to ensure the Executive’s budget was sustainable.

“I think things are better today than they were yesterday,” he said.

“I think a deal is possible. It’s possible because I think the parties have done a lot of good work on the issues that need to be settled - the issue of how to manage parades, how to handle the past, the issues of flying flags.

“The real work that still needs to be done is to make sure that the budget of the Northern Ireland Executive is sustainable and works, so intensive work needs to be done between the parties on that issue.”

Regarding his offer of £1 billion of spending power, Mr Cameron said a “comprehensive agreement” was needed to release it, rather than “simply some words about these issues”.

Mr Kenny said he also believed a deal was possible and the politicians “will be able to conclude the outstanding areas of disagreement on the matters that we have discussed”.

Sinn Fein’s frustration with the situation was summed up in a tweet from president Gerry Adams, which said: “2 Govts exiting after most amateurish ham fisted episode I have ever been involved in.”

The structures and governance arrangements at Stormont are also on the agenda on the talks.

But the most pressing issue is the budgetary situation.

Ministers in Belfast have already had to ask for an emergency £100 million loan from the Treasury to balance their books this financial year, and if a deal on welfare reform is not agreed they will face about £200 million of Government penalties for non-implementation.

As it is unlikely the administration would be able to absorb such a financial burden, the future of the Executive effectively depends on a resolution to the welfare reform issue.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said later in response to Mr Adams’ criticism, that there had been weeks of talks and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers was involved.

“I think altogether, before they met yesterday, that was 85 hours sat round the table trying to resolve these issues.

“The PM went yesterday and himself spent 10 hours yesterday and a couple of hours this morning trying to resolve the issues.

“The Government is absolutely committed, as the PM said yesterday morning, to taking this opportunity to move forward and make progress, but it is down to the political parties in Northern Ireland to find resolution on issues like welfare reform and so-called legacy issues.

“The offer on the table is £1 billion of financial spending power. That would enable the Northern Ireland Executive and authorities to address some of the difficult reforms that they need to make. That is there for the taking by the political parties in Northern Ireland if they work to resolve the issues.

“There is a heads of agreement document on the table for discussion. What we need to see is progress on those issues which need to be resolved by the political parties.”

The Number 10 spokeswoman said that Mr Cameron “continues to stand by to help with this process”.

She added: “The point about the £1 billion that is on the table is that it will help to address the situation in Northern Ireland, where they need to reform the state and public sector and invest in the private sector and help drive the economy and create jobs. Those are all things that matter to people in Northern Ireland.”

Negotiations involving the five parties continued at Stormont House after Mr Cameron and Mr Kenny departed.

The stakes in the talks were raised even higher earlier this month when Chancellor George Osborne said he was willing to accede to a long-standing Stormont demand to devolve corporation tax powers - but only if progress was made in the political negotiations, particularly on budgetary matters.

As well as the latest financial pledge from the UK Government, Mr Cameron and Mr Kenny last night presented a Heads of Agreement document to the five parties proposing potential ways forward on all of the areas of dispute confronting the Executive.

Mr Kenny said he genuinely felt agreement could be reached.

“I have to say the document that was tabled last evening is comprehensive and does address all of the issues that have been involved here for the last period,” he said.

“Politically there is not agreement on the issues that were tabled last evening, that doesn’t mean politicians who are elected and have responsibility devolved to them cannot conclude on a number of these matters.”

The Taoiseach added: “From the Government’s point of view in Dublin, we will continue to be available, along with the British Government, to assist, to encourage, to co-operate and help in any way possible here.”

Mr Cameron said the financial package would give new “financial firepower” to the Executive.

But he warned: “If there isn’t an agreement, then that financial firepower isn’t there.”

It is understood the offer is primarily based on allowing the Executive greater flexibility on how it spends money it can borrow on long terms under a process called the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative (RRI).

At present ministers can draw down money using the RRI to spend on infrastructure projects in Northern Ireland. It is understood the terms of the Government’s offer would enable ministers to use RRI money to address other budgetary pressures.

The Government deal does apparently include so-called “new” money to the tune of £10 million a year to fund potential new mechanisms to deal with investigations into historic Troubles crimes.