The province's two main parties - the protestant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Catholic Sinn Fein - have been struggling to reach a compromise during three days of talks in Scotland.

The DUP had been refusing to govern alongside Sinn Fein, while Sinn Fein was reluctant to recognise Northern Ireland's police force.

Both sides have now said that they will consult their members and study the proposals in detail before making a final decision.

Ian Paisley, the DUP leader, has suggested that the proposals are something his party can accept.
   
"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."

Divisions

Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's president, asked his party to consider the plan carefully. "We need to find ways to put divisions behind us," he said.

"I think we have a way forward here".

Tony Blair,
British Prime Minister

The agreement includes suggested changes to the workings of the local assembly which was set up as part of 1998 peace deal to give pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Roman Catholics a joint say in the province's affairs.
   
The deal recognises all parties' rights to take part in local government and requires full endorsement of the police.

Northern Ireland's Catholics have long mistrusted the Protestant-dominated police force and have previously refused to fully endorse it until power-sharing administration was in place.
   
The parties must accept or reject the governments' plan by November 10.

Local government

If they agree to the suggestions, preparations will get under way for restoring local government and responsibility for the province's government departments could be transferred from Britain to local hands on March 26.

If they don't, London will shut the assembly, stop members' salaries and continue running the province from Westminster, with greater input from Dublin.

Tony Blair, the British prime minister, was upbeat about the chances for success. "I think we have a way forward here," he said.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement largely ended three decades of violence between majority Protestants committed to ties with Britain and a Catholic minority in favour of a united Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended four years ago and repeated attempts to revive it have failed.