DUBLIN (AP) — The British and Irish prime ministers took control Thursday of multi-party talks on Northern Ireland's future with survival of the region's Catholic-Protestant government at stake.
The arrival of David Cameron and Enda Kenny in Belfast harkened back to the highest-pressure moments in Northern Ireland's two-decade peace process, when leaders from London and Dublin frequently worked together to coax polarized local parties toward compromise.
Speaking outside the negotiating venue, Cameron said he and Kenny would press local leaders to concede ground to their rivals once again so that Northern Ireland's five-party administration, led by the Irish Catholics of Sinn Fein and British Protestants of the Democratic Unionist Party, could be repaired. Local leaders, in turn, made their own mostly financial demands.
Cameron said talks expected to run through Saturday represented "the crucial phase" of a 9-week-old diplomatic push, with all sides agreed that a deal or defeat must be declared by Dec. 24. Failure could mean the 2015 collapse of the local administration and a restoration of direct London rule, the system that prevailed from 1972 through most of the early 2000s.
The Democratic Unionist-Sinn Fein alliance was forged in 2007 after the outlawed Irish Republican Army renounced violence and disarmed, and the IRA-linked Sinn Fein voted to accept Northern Ireland's police. Such power-sharing between former enemies was the central goal of the U.S.-brokered 1998 Good Friday peace accord.
Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists have remained united when challenged by attacks from IRA die-hards who reject the cease-fire. But over the past year, their unlikely partnership has degenerated into open contempt on an ever-growing list of often symbolic disputes. Unresolved issues include promotion of the Gaelic language, the parading rights of hard-line Protestant groups and how best to investigate unsolved slayings from a 45-year conflict that has left 3,700 dead.