BELFAST, Northern Ireland – Britain ordered power to be handed back to Northern Ireland's Protestant-Catholic government at midnight Saturday, and plotted a longer-term effort to restore faith in the region's shaky 1998 peace accord.
Britain decided to take direct control of Northern Ireland for 24 hours, a maneuver aimed at allowing it to postpone a Saturday deadline for the territory's legislature to elect a new Protestant leader.
Ulster Unionist chief David Trimble resigned six weeks ago from the post and said his Protestant party would not fill it as required unless the Irish Republican Army scrapped weapons first. An abortive vote Saturday would have compelled Britain to dissolve the whole administration and legislature, which has taken years of painstaking negotiations to create.
The new deadline was expected to be Sept. 24.
Britain's secretary of state, John Reid, signed the order authorizing the transfer of authority back to local control after he met Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen for a formal "review" of the crisis on Saturday.
A start to IRA disarmament is a key goal that Britain and Ireland have set in their latest joint plans, unveiled last month and still awaiting acceptance by local parties.
Cowen said the two governments have "put forward proposals that indicate the route map for the full implementation of the agreement."
"We have a common mind and a common commitment to make this process work," agreed Reid.
But reminders of the province's bloody past and polarized present were both on public display Saturday.
Emotions ran high in Omagh, a religiously mixed town west of Belfast where IRA dissidents committed the deadliest terrorist strike in Northern Ireland history, a 1998 car bomb that killed 29 people and wounded more than 300. Most of the fatalities were women or children. They included an English boy, three generations of one family, and two Spanish tourists.
Relatives of the dead gathered to publicize their unprecedented lawsuit against five alleged senior members of the so-called Real IRA, including three men awaiting trial in the Republic of Ireland on charges of terrorist activity. No one has been convicted in connection with the atrocity.
"Hopefully this will send a strong signal to those who go out and plant bombs," said Michael Gallagher, standing on the spot where he lost his only son, 19-year-old Aidan, in the blast. "It isn't just the police they'll have to worry about. Victims will fight back from now on."
The victims' relatives and their lawyers declined to say what damages they would seek in court.
"The important thing is that we have given the defendants the opportunity to answer our questions in a court of law," said Laurence Rushe, whose wife Libbi was killed. "What kind of people would we be if we did not seek justice for our loved ones?"
While the Omagh gathering united Catholics and Protestants, rival communities in north Belfast maintained a tense standoff related to Northern Ireland's traditional summertime Protestant parades.
One of the province's pro-British Protestant fraternal groups, the Apprentice Boys of Derry, staged hundreds of parades Saturday across Northern Ireland. A few threatened to stir up sectarian conflict with nearby Catholic areas, particularly in Ardoyne, a Catholic enclave of north Belfast that suffered protracted rioting in June and July.
Riot police, enforcing the ruling of a government-appointed Parades Commission, prevented a small group of Apprentice Boys from marching on a main road beside Ardoyne. They refused to let the marchers travel the route even by bus.
The marchers refused to leave, insisting they would stand their ground until other Protestants finished their marches in the evening.
"The situation is very volatile," said Billy Hutchinson, a Protestant politician from north Belfast linked to an outlawed Protestant gang, the Ulster Volunteer Force. "The Protestant community is being told they can't walk down a main road or even drive down it in a bus, and that's totally ridiculous."