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Northern Ireland Talks Near Collapse

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HILLSBOROUGH, Northern Ireland — The prime ministers of Britain and Ireland presented a compromise plan Wednesday to keep Northern Ireland's fractious politicians from breaking up their Catholic-Protestant government, but neither side accepted the deal.

Gordon Brown of Britain and Brian Cowen of Ireland ended their three-day diplomatic mission claiming to have dramatically narrowed the divisions between the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein and the British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party. Yet Sinn Fein remained poised to withdraw from the power-sharing coalition and bring it crashing down.

Both premiers held out hope the rivals could keep talking and fine-tune their proposals over the next two days.

"We believe that we have produced a pathway to an agreement," Brown said with Cowen at his side.

"I don't think we've failed. I think we've made enormous progress," Brown said. "On Monday, quite frankly, parties were not talking to each other."

However, neither Sinn Fein nor the Democratic Unionists sounded close to achieving a deal as the prime ministers departed for London and Dublin. The two local parties blamed each other for making impossible demands.

The premiers hurried to Northern Ireland on Monday in fear that the 2 1/2-year-old coalition was on the brink of collapse. Sinn Fein warned it was about to withdraw following a long dispute over when the coalition would take charge of the province's police and justice system from Britain.

Sinn Fein, Britain, Ireland and the United States all wanted the move to happen by 2008. But many Protestants remain upset over the prospect that former IRA commanders in Sinn Fein – men involved in killing police officers and judges – would have any role now in overseeing law and order.

Democratic Unionist leader Peter Robinson said his party felt bullied by Sinn Fein threats to collapse their coalition.

"(We) will not accept any second-rate deal simply to get across the line to suit someone else's deadline," Robinson said. "If others choose to walk away, then I believe that the wrath of the community will be upon them for doing that."

His partner atop the Belfast administration, Sinn Fein deputy leader Martin McGuinness, said he was "very deeply disappointed." McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander, accused the Democratic Unionists of refusing to be "partners in progress."

Power-sharing, the central vision of Northern Ireland's U.S.-brokered 1998 peace deal, was proposed as the best way to end a conflict between its majority Protestants and minority Catholics that claimed 3,600 lives from the late 1960s to mid-1990s.

"Power-sharing is so important for this community. It has the potential to resolve so many problems," Cowen said, stressing that local leaders must accept the Anglo-Irish blueprint "in the immediate days ahead" to avoid a breakdown.

Sinn Fein accused the Democratic Unionists of playing for time in expectation that Brown's government soon will be toppled in British general elections this spring. The likely victors, the Conservative Party, are traditionally sympathetic to the Protestant side.

Brown said the Anglo-Irish plan calls for Britain to transfer powers to a new Justice Department for Northern Ireland by early May, meeting a Sinn Fein demand for a fixed date before the British election.

The next British general election is widely expected to take place that month.

The Democratic Unionists insist they're not delaying any agreement in hopes of a Conservative Party victory, but they have set many conditions for accepting the transfer of justice powers.

They want to overhaul how Northern Ireland's summertime parades by the Orange Order, a hard-line Protestant brotherhood, are managed, so that banned parades near traditionally hostile Catholic turf can resume.

Catholic opposition to such Protestant demonstrations of power fueled Northern Ireland's descent into civil war in the late 1960s. Northern Ireland suffered widespread rioting again in the 1990s when Catholic militants sought to block Protestant parades from passing Sinn Fein strongholds.

Britain responded by forming a Parades Commission that barred the Orange Order from its most bitterly contested routes. This has greatly reduced rioting over the past decade.

The Democratic Unionists, whose leaders are mostly Orangemen, now want Britain to shut the Parades Commission and reverse parade restrictions. McGuinness said Sinn Fein would never accept this.

"We have displayed extraordinary patience and commitment over the past 18 months as we sought to persuade the Democratic Unionist Party to be partners of progress," McGuinness said. "(Making) the abolition of the Parades Commission a precondition for the transfer of powers on policing and justice flies in the face of all that."

The compromise plan calls for the Parades Commission to remain, but a new tier of mediators would try to broker local agreements over parade routes between Orangemen and anti-Orange groups.