Belfast Telegraph

PM signals move on Ulster deal

David Cameron has signalled he is prepared to offer a further "small level" of financial flexibility for Northern Ireland in a bid to prevent the collapse of the power-sharing Executive, the Stormont First Minister has said.

Following talks in Downing Street, Peter Robinson suggested the sums on offer were still far short of the assistance the parties in Northern Ireland were looking for.

He said the Prime Minister made clear that any additional support depended on the parties resolving the impasse over the Government's welfare reforms which Sinn Fein are refusing to implement.

"The Prime Minister has indicated that he can be of some more help - but perhaps not significantly more help - on the financial problem," Mr Robinson told reporters.

"I do think that we need to have some realism injected into that debate. But whatever additional help he can be, we will only find out if we can resolve the issue of welfare reform.

"He gave an indication that there was some small level of flexibility but in the context of welfare reform being dealt with."

Mr Cameron returned to London last week empty handed after two days of talks with the Northern Ireland parties and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny failed to break the logjam over a series of disputes which are threatening to bring down the Stormont Executive and see the return of direct rule from Westminster.

The parties were united in dismissing the Prime Minister's proposed financial deal, which he said would have released £1 billion in additional spending power over six years.

Mr Robinson, who spoke to Mr Cameron in the margins of a joint ministerial committee meeting - which brings together the leaders of UK Government and the devolved administrations - said that unless the parties could settle their differences by Christmas, the Executive would collapse.

"We have a very short window in order to get an agreement," he said.

"If welfare reform isn't resolved, we will have real difficulties in agreeing a budget. That has to be done in January. If a budget isn't agreed in January, then permanent secretaries step in under the legislation."

However Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who was also at the No 10 meeting, said Mr Cameron had to accept that Northern Ireland was a "unique" case and could not sustain the welfare cuts implemented in the rest of the UK.

"He needs to realise that a society emerging from the sort of conflict we have been through is totally different from what is happening in any other jurisdiction in these islands," he said.

"I hope that over the course of the coming days we will see a much more realistic contribution made by the British Government. We have made the case. I think people need to listen to the case that we have made."

Trade unionists in Northern Ireland blamed the Tories for "draconian" cuts.

Irish Congress of Trade Unions assistant general secretary Peter Bunting said: "The dam has burst after years of pressure from Westminster."

He said that, since 2010, £3.6 billion has been removed from the block grant paid from London to run public services in Northern Ireland.

"Years of whittling away at all public services have reached down to the bone. There is now nothing else to cut without doing permanent damage to our social fabric."

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