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David Cameron bails out as Stormont summit ends in embarrassment

By Noel McAdam

The latest attempt to secure a political deal to save Stormont has collapsed in embarrassing disarray as an angry Prime Minister made an early exit from Northern Ireland.

An exasperated David Cameron voiced dismay over the failure of the politicians to cut a deal after two months of inter-party negotiations.

Instead, the Prime Minister flew back early to London after multi-party talks fell short of agreement even on the most urgent issues - such as the budget and welfare reform.

Westminster sources indicated that the Prime Minister had come to Belfast in the belief that a deal could be struck. It is understood that a hotel conference room had already been booked to host a Press conference in anticipation of a breakthrough yesterday.

Instead, Mr Cameron flew out of Northern Ireland earlier than expected as he realised that the DUP and Sinn Fein had made no progress on the financial issues which are paralysing the Executive.

Mr Cameron said he had offered the parties the potential for borrowing up to almost £1bn over the next five to six years.

However, this was rejected by the parties. Sinn Fein in particular is understood to have demanded £1bn in new cash to protect public services.

Insiders told of angry scenes as negotiations continued late into the night on Thursday.

One eyewitness described seeing Mr Cameron holding a finance paper he had been presented with "as if it was a dirty nappy".

Another described a heated row between the Prime Minister and Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams.

Mr Adams is understood to have told Mr Cameron to his face that he believed his attempts at negotiation were "amateurish".

The Prime Minister angrily responded by questioning what Mr Adams, a TD for Louth, would know about the negotiations because he only joined them after 85 hours of talking.

Sinn Fein continued its onslaught yesterday morning when John O'Dowd described the PM as a "penny-pinching accountant".

At a hastily arranged Press conference shortly afterwards, the Prime Minister said: "I was prepared to put on the table real spending power, new spending power, for the Northern Ireland Executive to sort out some of the issues that it faces.

"Spending power, if everything was agreed, potentially of as much as £1bn.

"But a deal hasn't been possible. What I hope will happen now is the politicians here in Northern Ireland will work together to agree these vital issues."

While details remained scant, it was understood Mr Cameron had offered enhanced access for Executive ministers to loans under the Reform and Reinvestment Initiative, which is already being used for First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness's Building A United Community proposals.

The initiative also allows ministers to borrow around £200m a year to build projects such as roads and new schools.

It is understood Mr Cameron suggested that a full £200m could be made available towards funding a voluntary redundancy scheme in the Civil Service in the first year, followed by around £100m in the five following years.

The PM was also believed to have committed to contributing towards an extra £10m each year to fund a proposed new Historical Investigations Unit for the next four years.

An 18-page paper, called A Draft Agreement, which was handed to the parties just after midnight on Thursday, proposed eight new quangos. A large proportion of the language overlapped with the final document drawn up 12 months ago by American diplomats Dr Richard Haass and Professor Meghan O'Sullivan.

The paper amounted to an outline comprehensive agreement on finance and welfare reform as well as flags, parades, culture and identity, dealing with the legacy of the Troubles and plans for a slimmed-down, more efficient devolved adminsitration.

Proposals included the setting up of a 15-member Flags and Culture and Identity Commission and transferring the function of the present Parades Commission to MLAs - although the commission would remain in place until new legislation had been passed.

Story so far

The talks are focusing on disputes over flags, parades, the past and welfare reform. Peter Robinson said Mr Cameron would have offered more if the parties were able to find agreement on welfare reform. The DUP leader said afterwards the parties had not "sufficiently challenged the Prime Minister on his bottom line on financial issues". Sinn Fein has opposed reforms passed by Westminster in February 2013.

Further reading

David Cameron offers billion pound financial package

A wasted trip for the deal that never was

First Ministers to make fresh effort for better financial offer

PM's early exit speaks volumes on the state of this process

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