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David Cameron prepared to provide funds if we agree welfare deal: Peter Robinson

By Liam Clarke

The leaders of the two main unionist parties and the Secretary of State have all said that Prime Minister David Cameron was prepared to offer the Northern Ireland Executive more money to reach a deal in the talks.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt told this newspaper the prize could run into hundreds of millions if we are prepared to show the government that we can balance the budget.

He focused attention on repayments we have had to pay London from our block grant after overspending by failing to implement welfare reforms and cuts.

Up to now, Theresa Villiers has always said that there could be no "big cheque" handed to Northern Ireland.

She repeated that line in answer to questions from Ivan Lewis, the Shadow Secretary of State, in Westminster yesterday. Tory MP Nigel Mills hit out at monetised incentives for Stormont. He said: "The solution to every problem in Northern Ireland can't be more money from the English taxpayer."

Ms Villiers suggested that there could be more money, provided it wasn't specifically to subsidise welfare reform, something that is forbidden under EU rules.

She insisted "the solution to these problems can't be a big cheque from the UK government", but added "we are certainly prepared to continue to discuss matters such as new institutions on the past".

Peter Robinson, who met Mr Cameron with Martin McGuinness yesterday morning, also suggested the Prime Minister was showing some flexibility and needed to be tested on it.

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

"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 Nesbitt pointed to a Peace and Investment Fund which the local parties had suggested to help build for a shared future.

He suggested that if a deal on welfare reform was agreed, even in a modified form, the British government might contribute to this fund amounts close to what we are being fined for welfare reform.

"That is clearly negotiable and it is £114m next year," the UUP leader said.

He also believed £100m we borrowed from the government last month might be treated in the same way.

"Cameron was up for those conversations. I got that impression at our bilateral with him and also at the round table," the UUP leader said.

"In fact, he went beyond hinting that he would look imaginatively and generously at helping us.

"I think he went beyond that to giving very, very definite hints that those were the sort of areas we could look at."

Ms Villiers gave details of the cash offer made by Mr Cameron and rejected by the local parties.

It consisted of £10m a year for dealing with the legacy of the past and low interest loans of up to a billion over five years for a public service voluntary redundancy scheme.

Background

Talks on the political future of Northern Ireland were convened by the British and Irish governments and have been going on in Stormont House since October 16. They are covering the budget, which is hundreds of millions in deficit, and welfare reform which we are being fined tens of millions for because of the Executive's failure to introduce changes and cuts.

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