The British and Irish governments have made public what they are calling an "all or nothing" compromise plan to save the peace process in Northern Ireland. The plan is designed to save a three-year-peace agreement that is in danger of unraveling.
The major political parties in Northern Ireland have been given five days to consider the proposal, said by the British and Irish governments to be a fair and balanced package of measures.
Among other things, the proposal calls for the handover of Irish Republican Army weapons, police reforms, and a scaling down of the British military presence in the province.
The plan is designed to save Northern Ireland's Catholic-Protestant government, which could be dissolved after August 12th if no consensus is reached.
The peace process was thrown into crisis at the beginning of July when Protestant political leader David Trimble resigned as head of the Protestant-Catholic government. He resigned in protest over the IRA's refusal to give up its weapons, as required under the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, John Reid, is urging all parties involved in the peace process to examine the proposal in total and not to get bogged down on individual points. "If this is seen as only a victory for one side or the other, then the peace process would never have started, would not continue, and will never conclude," Mr. Reid said. "It has to be a victory for the whole of the Northern Irish people and society and that is what we believe we have put forward today."
Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen says the key to the whole package is disarming the paramilitary groups on both sides. "There are people out there with arms," Mr. Cowen said, "and we want to see a situation where arms are taken out of the equation completely in all respects so that normal society can return here which is the people's entitlement."
The release of the proposal coincides with some of the worst sectarian violence seen in Belfast in several years. Observers say the violence is a graphic reminder of what life in the province could once again be like if the package is rejected.