Northern Ireland's legislature, dormant for three-and-a-half years, was to reconvene yesterday so that its members could try to form a Catholic-Protestant administration, the long-elusive goal of the Good Friday peace accord forged amid high hopes eight years ago.
But even as the 108 members of the Northern Ireland Assembly take their seats and reprise well-honed arguments across the Stormont Parliamentary Building floor, their work is being overshadowed by the slaying of a Catholic teenager, the latest of more than 3,600 deaths in the four-decade conflict over this British territory.
Michael McIlveen, 15, was to be buried yesterday hours after the assembly reconvened. Members expect to hold a minute's silence in his honor, and could cut proceedings short so that lawmakers from Michael's predominantly Protestant hometown, Ballymena, can attend the funeral.
The lawmakers are supposed within weeks to try to elect a cross-community coalition. Several previous diplomatic efforts have failed to revive the power-sharing administration that governed Northern Ireland sporadically until its collapse in October 2002 over an Irish Republican Army (IRA) spying scandal.
The British government warns it will pull the plug on the assembly for good if both sides can't come together by a Nov. 24 deadline.
However, hopes are running low that the major Protestant group, Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, will cooperate with Sinn Fein, the IRA-linked party that represents most Catholics.
British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain warned lawmakers that ordinary citizens' patience was running out.
Hain said that assembly members had each received an annual average of ?85,000 (US$160,000) over the past three-and-a-half years "not to do their jobs."
Hain said there would be "no blinking" on the Nov. 24 deadline and appealed to both sides: "Take the powers away from me and do the job you were elected to do."
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams has warned his party could withdraw from the assembly long before Nov. 24 if the Democratic Unionists veto power-sharing.
But Paisley says he won't budge unless the IRA disbands and Sinn Fein accepts the authority of the province's mostly Protestant police force, both monumental hurdles that the Sinn Fein-IRA movement appears unlikely to clear by the deadline.
Paisley says he won't even negotiate directly with Adams, much less share a Cabinet table with him, until this happens.
"My principle says to me you don't negotiate with terrorists," he said.
Both sides' politicians do agree on one point: the May 8 killing of Michael McIlveen demonstrates how bitterly divided this society remains despite the 1990s cease-fires by the IRA and its Protestant paramilitary enemies.
The truces have reduced politically motivated bloodshed to a trickle -- but done nothing to ease grassroots hatred.
Michael suffered fatal brain damage after a Protestant gang chased him a kilometer from Ballymena's cinema to a cul-de-sac, where they cornered and bludg-eoned him with baseball bats.
One of Michael's friends last year survived a similar assault, when Protestants used a work-man's knife to carve the image of a Union Jack on his chest.
Since his killing, a Protestant girlfriend of Michael has received death threats from school girls wielding Gaelic camogie sticks, a piece of sports equipment used only by the Catholic side.
Across Northern Ireland, more than 90 percent of its 1.7 million residents live on exclusively British Protestant or Irish Catholic turf, partly to feel safe from assault.
Analysts say the brutally slow politics of the peace process -- where voters have backed the most hard-line politicians to gain advantage in what feels like never-ending negotiations -- has exac-erbated divisions.