Weston-Under-Lizard, England Northern Ireland political leaders ended four days of crisis talks Saturday where they began, in deadlock. But the British and Irish prime ministers said they would put forward a package proposal aimed at resolving all outstanding issues and saving the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
The political leaders had met at a secluded country house in the British Midlands to try to resolve differences that had led First Minister David Trimble to resign early this month, plunging the peace process into crisis.
The main concern of Trimble and his Protestant Ulster Unionist Party was the refusal of the Irish Republican Army to keep a promise made last year to "put arms completely and verifiably beyond use."
Sinn Fein, the IRA's political wing, responded that this issue needed to be dealt with in the broader context of continuing disputes over police reform and a scaling down of the British military presence in Northern Ireland.
Prime Ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of the Irish Republic emerged from the final round of talks Saturday to say they would draw up a package as soon as possible dealing with all outstanding issues and would invite the parties to accept it.
All sides are working under a tight deadline, because there must be an agreement within six weeks of Trimble's resignation by Aug. 12 or Britain's Northern Ireland Secretary John Reid will be required to step in. He would have the option of calling new elections for a Northern Ireland Assembly in the autumn or suspending the peace process and returning the province to direct rule by Britain.
If Reid does have to act, Britain's preferred option is reported to be a return to direct rule. It fears new elections could strengthen the hand of extremists on both sides.
Blair said great progress has been made in Northern Ireland in the past three years and "it would be tragic if collectively we failed to maintain and build on these achievements."
But, he added: "We don't contemplate failure." He said the prime ministers believed there is a way forward that could address conflicting concerns of the parties. "With sufficient political will, we will succeed," he said.
Ahern, who is scheduled to leave in coming days on a trip to South America, said the package proposal would not be made public so as to allow the parties to consider it in private. "From a negotiating point of view, this week has been a great success," he said.
Trimble left the talks without making any comment. Other political leaders appeared somber at the outcome but suggested they were clinging to the hope of agreement.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party had made it "very, very clear" that it wanted the arms issue resolved. "But the threat to the process doesn't come from the weapons of the IRA that are silenced," he said. "It comes from those who have used plastic bullets and from loyalist (Protestant paramilitary) weapons."
Police used plastic bullets and water cannon Thursday night when Roman Catholics rioted in Belfast. More than 100 police officers were injured before the riot was brought under control.