After three days of closed-door negotiations, Britain and Ireland on Friday offered a compromise formula to restore Northern Ireland's power-sharing government by next March, allowing for an election or referendum to endorse the deal.
While the package was not immediately embraced by the province's fractious political parties, it gave them until Nov. 10 to hold meetings among their followers and then give their answer to what was promptly dubbed the St. Andrews Agreement.
But it is not certain that an agreement sponsored by London and Dublin will be enough to survive the tripwires of Northern Ireland's fissured politics.
The main parties, the Roman Catholic Sinn Fein and the Protestant Democratic Unionist Party, promised to respond by Nov. 10. If they consent, their action will begin a choreographed sequence of events to permit the power-sharing government set up under the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 to be restored.
It was suspended four years ago in a dispute over alleged espionage by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
Restoration of the power-sharing government, consisting of an executive branch as well as the existing local assembly, would be an important step toward ending Northern Ireland's anomalous political status at a time when its people have become used to relative peace and economic growth.
At a news conference, prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Bertie Ahern of Ireland refrained from high-flown language to herald the end of the negotiations.
"I think we have a way forward here," Blair said at a news conference in the golf resort where the talks took place.
Ian Paisley, the 80-year-old Protestant leader, said his party had made "considerable progress throughout the course of these talks."
The Democratic Unionists, who want a continued union with Britain, had been pressing for Sinn Fein -- which seeks a united Ireland and is the political wing of the IRA -- to commit itself completely to respecting the province's police force, which Sinn Fein regards as a Protestant-dominated adversary.
Sinn Fein has been pressing for Paisley's agreement to sit in a power-sharing government as first minister with a republican leader as his deputy -- an idea that would once have been unthinkable and has yet to take effect.
The agreement means both sides have to accept each other's demands for the deal to unfold.
On Friday, at least, they seemed determined to do that. "We need to find ways to put differences behind us," Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, said.
Paisley seemed equally ready to compromise. "Today we stand at a crossroads," he said.
"We stand at a place where there is a road to democracy and there is a road to anarchy, and I trust that we will see in the coming days the vast majority of people taking to the road of democracy," he added.
Initially, Britain threatened to shut down the Northern Ireland Assembly and resume direct rule of the troubled province if the parties did not agree to settle their differences by Nov. 24. That deadline now seems to have slipped to next year.