LONDON -- With a midnight deadline looming, the British government and Ian Paisley's hard-line Protestant party seemed to be inching toward a face-saving compromise to rescue Northern Ireland's peace process.
Midnight tonight is the moment of truth. British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government has warned the major parties representing Northern Ireland's Protestants and Roman Catholics that they must agree to sit together in a power-sharing government by then or Britain will bring down the curtain on self-rule for the troubled province.
The deadline is "cast in stone," said Peter Hain, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary.
On Saturday, Paisley and his Democratic Unionist Party reversed half a century of refusals and agreed in principle to share power with Sinn Fein, the major Catholic-backed party. Democratic Unionist officials called the decision "historic" but also asked for a delay of six to eight weeks.
Blair and Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, in Berlin for the European Union's 50th anniversary celebrations yesterday, were not happy with the delaying tactics.
"This is not something we can live with; it is not satisfactory to us," Ahern said.
But as the deadline drew closer, Britain's "cast in stone" position seemed to soften.
Hain signed an order yesterday restoring power to the Northern Ireland assembly that has been suspended since 2002. He said that tonight's deadline still had to be met but that if the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein could reach some other agreement on their own, he would consider it.
"Success would be devolution [of power], failure would be dissolution. I don't at the moment see any other way.
"If there is another way, if the parties have got their own way, then they need to jointly agree and come back to me pretty quickly, because otherwise the law kicks in and there's nothing I can do about it," he said.
Sinn Fein has made clear its eagerness to join a power-sharing agreement. In January, it tried to smooth the way to an agreement by making a historic reversal of its own: agreeing for the first time to support local policing in Northern Ireland.
Elections for a new assembly this month resulted in clear-cut victories for the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein. The vote was widely interpreted as a mandate for the two rivals to set aside their enmity and share power under terms outlined in the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.
Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams said that the rival party's reluctance to accept tonight's deadline would "frustrate the will of the electorate."
But the Democratic Unionists said they needed the extra time "to raise the level of confidence in the community and instill a positive attitude toward devolution and local control."
Tom Hundley writes for the Chicago Tribune.