A key figure in the Northern Ireland peace process, John Hume, is resigning as leader of his moderate Catholic party. The announcement comes at a critical time for Northern Ireland.

John Hume says he will resign as leader of the Social Democratic and Labor Party in November, for health reasons. The 64-year-old Mr. Hume says he will retain his seats in the British and European parliaments, and he will concentrate on bringing international investment to Northern Ireland.

"International contacts are very crucial to our future, particularly on the economic front, which is central to our development, particularly for our young people, so that we can give them real hope that they can be the first generation of [Northern Irish] young people that can be sure of earning a living in their own land," he said.

Mr. Hume played a key role in forging a Northern Ireland peace agreement that came into effect on Good Friday in 1998.

He won that year's Nobel Peace Prize along with David Trimble, who leads a pro-British party, the Ulster Unionists.

Mr. Hume rose to prominence in the 1960s, when he led a civil rights campaign for Northern Ireland's minority Roman Catholic community.

In 1979, he founded the Social Democratic and Labor Party and for three decades he had the backing of moderate Catholics.

In last June's election, however, Mr. Hume's party for the first time got fewer votes than Sein Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army.

Analysts says Mr. Hume's departure could result in more power shifting to Sein Fein leader Gerry Adams.

Mr. Hume is resigning as Northern Ireland confronts political stalemate over disarmament of the Irish Republican Army, police reforms and other matters.

Britain faces a Sunday deadline to decide whether to resume direct rule of the province from London or call new elections that could increase the power of hard-line parties.