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N. Ireland negotiations move to rural England

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WESTON-UNDER-LIZARD, England — Efforts to save Northern Ireland's peace accord shifted Monday to a secluded English mansion, where the British and Irish governments planned to challenge Catholic and Protestant parties to strike a new deal within days.

"We have come an enormous way. We feel a very great sense of obligation to crack the remaining issues," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said before heading to the negotiations in rural Staffordshire, northwest of England's second-largest city, Birmingham.

"This is the week where we can try to finish the outstanding issues," agreed Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who traveled with Blair by helicopter from the Blair's country retreat, Chequers.

Former President Clinton also spent the night at Chequers, but Blair's office said Clinton was not involved in the Irish talks.

Their effort came as Northern Ireland weathered the most fraught week on its calendar, with hard-line Protestants from the Orange Order brotherhood staging marches across the province.

A massive security operation on Sunday ensured that Orangemen didn't parade through the main Catholic section of Portadown, a confrontation that has inspired widespread violence in previous years. Predominantly Protestant areas of Northern Ireland remained largely calm overnight, and police forecast little unrest in the run-up to bigger Orange parades Thursday.

"We are approaching, I think, what may very well be the moment of truth for this entire process," Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble, who was at the talks, said Monday.

Trimble brought the process to a critical point by resigning as Protestant leader of the Northern Ireland administration on July 1, protesting the IRA's failure to begin disarming.

Previous stages of Northern Ireland negotiations have taken place under a round-the-clock media spotlight, but Blair decided the latest diplomatic push should be staged in Weston Park, a grand 17th-century residence isolated amid 1,000 acres of private gardens and forest.

Police prevented journalists from entering the venue, and the first party delegations entered the ancestral home of the Earls of Bradford through side entrances.

At stake is the survival of Northern Ireland's joint Catholic-Protestant government created under the Good Friday accord of 1998. The Ulster Unionists, the coalition's major Protestant party, are threatening to scuttle the power-sharing experiment within weeks unless the Irish Republican Army starts to disarm as the peace pact and subsequent deals had envisaged.

Gerry Adams, leader of the IRA-linked Sinn Fein party, arrived for the talks Monday and was asked whether the IRA would make any firm commitments on disarmament.

"The IRA are not at the talks," Adams responded.

Sinn Fein and the coalition's larger Catholic-backed party, the moderate Social Democratic and Labor Party, want Britain to toughen its plans for reshaping the province's mostly Protestant police force, another unresolved part of the accord. The Ulster Unionists think the reform plans already go too far.

Sinn Fein also wants more military cutbacks in Northern Ireland, where thousands of troops have already been withdrawn and more than two dozen installations closed.

If this week's talks fail, Britain would face pressure to suspend the Northern Ireland administration and resume direct control of the province. It previously took that action in early 2000 when the disarmament issue last brought Protestants to the brink of withdrawal.