BELFAST, Northern Ireland – The British and Irish governments gave their peace proposals Wednesday to key Northern Ireland parties, urging each to accept their recommendations in full and thereby save the province's Catholic-Protestant administration.
Officials from Sinn Fein, the Irish Republican Army-linked party, and the Ulster Unionists, the major Protestant party, confirmed they received copies of the document Wednesday morning. The proposals reached seven parties simultaneously by courier or fax, Britain's Northern Ireland Office said.
The British secretary of state, John Reid, and Irish Foreign Secretary Brian Cowen planned to make the document public later Wednesday at Hillsborough Castle, Reid's residence outside Belfast.
Officials said both men were urging each party to take several days before responding, saying the survival of Northern Ireland's peace accord was at stake.
The British and Irish governments promised in mid-July to publish a "take it or leave it" list of commitments and recommendations designed to spur IRA disarmament and, in turn, a continuation of Northern Ireland's 20-month-old administration. Both are important goals of the Good Friday pact.
Three of the administration's four parties -- Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, and the moderate Catholics of the Social Democratic and Labor Party -- received the document following their involvement in several months of negotiations.
But in one sign of how difficult power-sharing has been, the fourth coalition partner -- the Democratic Unionist Party -- was left out because that hardline Protestant party opposes it.
Britain is hoping that, by offering more commitments on military cutbacks and police reform in Northern Ireland, it can inspire the outlawed IRA to begin scrapping its stockpiled weapons. Before, many Protestants had complained that Britain might concede too much.
Tensions within Northern Ireland's power-sharing regime mushroomed into a crisis last month when the senior Protestant member, Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, resigned and said he'd seek re-election to the post only if the IRA began disarming.
Trimble has twice led his Protestant party into coalitions alongside Sinn Fein -- both times as part of deals that envisioned disarmament would result.
In February 2000, Britain stepped in to suspend the administration's powers when Trimble faced a party revolt. Three months later, Trimble persuaded a narrow majority of Ulster Unionists to resume work alongside Sinn Fein after the IRA issued an unprecedented pledge to begin putting weapons "completely and verifiably beyond use."
This time, Trimble's resignation as first minister means Northern Ireland's legislature has until Aug. 11 to fill the post or see the whole power-sharing effort collapse. Once again, Britain could forestall that deadline for destruction by withdrawing authority from local hands and resuming "direct rule," the quasi-colonial system originally imposed here in 1972.
While many Protestants feared that Britain will offer Catholics more concessions on reforming the Royal Ulster Constabulary and locally recruited army regiment, both of which are overwhelmingly Protestant, the IRA has offered no sign of moving on disarmament.
The political tension coincides with some of the worst sectarian violence on Belfast streets in several years. An 18-year-old Protestant, Gavin Brett, was being buried Wednesday, three days after he was shot dead by Protestant extremists who fired on a crowd outside a Catholic sports club.
Britain planned to strengthen its police and army deployments, particularly in north Belfast, where rioting has repeatedly flared since June on the boundaries separating Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.
For the first time in five nights, the capital's north side remained calm Wednesday. To the northwest, British army experts defused a pipebomb thrown at a Catholic home in the predominantly Protestant town of Ballymena. Police blame Protestant extremists for about 150 such attacks on Catholic property this year.