British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Friday proposed "indirect contact talks" to try to end an increasingly violent six-day deadlock over a banned Protestant march that has shaken Northern Ireland's fragile peace process.
As the proposals were unveiled, police in Britain and Ireland said they had arrested a total of nine people in an operation aimed at foiling a dissident Irish republican "terrorist" bomb attack in London.Six people were held in London, including some said to be in possession of explosive devices intended to be used "within minutes." Three more people were arrested in the Irish Republic.
The alleged bomb campaign appeared to be the work of Irish republican guerrillas opposed to April's peace accord, which was intended to draw a line under three decades of sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland that has cost 3,600 lives.
In an attempt to bring the British province back from the brink of a new explosion of violence, Blair's chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, wrote to the Protestant Orange Order and local Roman Catholic residents opposed to the annual parade along the Garvaghy Road in Portadown.
They were asked to name four participants each for the talks. The two sides will not meet face to face when the talks start at 9 a.m. on Saturday, but will negotiate through two go-betweens and Powell.
Both the Orange Order and the Garvaghy residents indicated they would take part.
The Orange Order has been banned from marching along the Garvaghy Road for fear of derailing the peace accord.
Orangemen, who support the province's British link, see their marches as a vital affirmation of their culture, while Catholics along the march routes see the parades as triumphalist and threatening.
Earlier in the day, Britain ferried more troops to Portadown by helicopter in a show of strength after dozens of police were injured in overnight clashes with Protestant demonstrators.
As night fell, the mood among the Portadown protesters along the confrontation line appeared to be turning ugly, prompting fears of a repeat of Thursday night's violence, in which 30 police were injured after being attacked with nail bombs, bricks and fireworks.
The Portadown standoff has sparked trouble across the province, replacing the hope of peace with the fear of a return to all-out sectarian and political violence.