Tensions at the heart of the failed Northern Ireland talks were illustrated by a verbal spat between David Cameron and Gerry Adams shortly before the British prime minister quit Belfast yesterday.
The British government and Sinn Féin were last night adopting opposing hardline positions about what is financially available and required to support a deal after Mr Cameron and Taoiseach Enda Kenny left Stormont early, having decided agreement could not be reached.
There is considerable doubt over whether a pre-Christmas deal is achievable after Mr Cameron offered a financial package which all five main Northern Ireland parties rejected. Sinn Féin described the offer as “derisory”.
Sources said Mr Cameron demonstrated a “ruthlessness” during the talks when it came to financial matters, while it also emerged he exchanged sharp words with Mr Adams at Stormont House.
“Gerry Adams accused Enda Kenny and David Cameron of being ‘amateurish’ and ‘ham-fisted’ in the negotiations,” explained one of the participants, comments the Sinn Féin president later repeated in a tweet.
While a taoiseach or prime minister would normally be expected to shrug off such criticism, the talks source said: “Cameron responded by saying something like, ‘What would you know about it; you only just joined the talks after 85 hours of talks’.”
The source insisted the incident did not spark the two leaders’ decision to abruptly depart the talks. They had told party negotiators they were leaving before Mr Adams made his comments, the source said.
Not hanging about
However, their early exit caused shock in Northern political circles. “It might not be what they are used to, but if there isn’t a deal to be done, he is not going to hang about,” a Downing Street source said of Mr Cameron’s departure.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan and Northern Secretary Theresa Villiers are to formally re-engage with the parties on Wednesday. In the meantime, the five parties – the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP, the SDLP and Alliance – are to maintain contact to establish if a deal can be salvaged.
Mr Kenny and Mr Cameron had presented the parties with an 18-page proposed draft agreement. Although some progress was made on issues such as the past, parades and flags and restructuring the Northern Executive and Assembly, all party leaders said Mr Cameron fell seriously short with his financial package.
The prime minister said he was offering "financial firepower" of up to £1 billion (€1.26 billion) to offset budget cuts of £1.5 billion over the next five years. But First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said this primarily was by means of the Executive raising loans, which would further burden the administration.
“Without a credible financial package, progress is impossible,” Mr McGuinness said.
But Downing Street was equally assertive. “The days of easy money are over, people have to realise this,” said a senior source.