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N. Ireland talks end, "final package' on tap

The British and Irish governments promised to draw up a proposal for saving Northern Ireland's Protestant-Catholic government after marathon negotiations ended Saturday with no commitment on Irish Republican Army disarmament.

"We do not believe now that further negotiation is necessary," British Prime Minister Tony Blair declared beside his Irish counterpart, Bertie Ahern.

"It is now for us, on the basis of our discussions, to draw together a final package" to present to the parties, Blair said.

The unfulfilled goal in talks was to defuse the crisis threatening to blow apart Northern Ireland's joint government, the wobbly four-party coalition that is the year-old cornerstone of the 1998 peace pact.

The IRA is in the driver's seat. If it accepts the British-Irish document and responds with a gesture on disarmament, the main Protestant party could stay in government and the peace process move ahead. If the IRA doesn't like the plan, it won't scrap any weapons, making it impossible for the provincial government to continue.

The British-Irish document expected to be presented within days will spell out Britain's intentions to amend its already detailed plans for reforming Northern Ireland's mostly Protestant police force; to further reduce troops and army bases in line with the prevailing terrorist threat; and the next steps if the IRA refuses to get rid of any weapons in response.

"From a negotiating point of view, this week has been a great success," said Ahern, who said the British-Irish plan would specify that all the contentious parts of the 1998 pact should be implemented, including IRA disarmament.

But David Trimble, the Protestant who resigned two weeks ago as leader of Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration, left the talks early, saying that the good intentions of Blair and Ahern hadn't appeared to move the IRA and its allied Sinn Fein party.

Trimble emphasized that his party, the Ulster Unionists, could not go on sharing power with Sinn Fein under these circumstances, and would allow the coalition to collapse Aug. 12 if the IRA hasn't begun disarming.

"Anything short of that will not be seen as a success," Trimble said. "We've had so much effort, over three years since the agreement, and we've had various stages at which we thought something was going to happen, but then it didn't. We've now reached a point where it has to happen."

Sinn Fein spokesman Richard McAuley noted that the party had spent the week insisting it needed a full British-Irish plan before the issue of IRA disarmament could be advanced.

"So we're the only party at these talks who got what we were asking for," McAuley said.