LONDON -- Unionist political leaders in Northern Ireland yesterday agreed to overt, face-to-face talks with nationalists -- the first in 15 years -- in a new effort to solve the bloody conflict in the province.
They announced that they had "responded positively" to a proposal by Peter Brooke, Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, for all-party talks that will eventually involve the government of the Irish Republic.
Mr. Brooke, who is expected to make a parliamentary statement today or tomorrow, had set an Easter deadline for agreement on the talks.
He has suggested three-stage talks involving:
*The political parties of Northern Ireland, excluding Sinn Fein -- the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army -- and British officials on the future government of the province.
*Northern Ireland representatives and the government of the Republic of Ireland in Dublin on future North-South relations.
*The Irish and British governments on bilateral relations.
Britain is seeking to shift political control of the province from the bTC Northern Ireland Office in London to some form of local power-sharing legislature in Belfast. It is committed to following a majority decision by popular vote on whether the province should remain part of the United Kingdom or be reunited with the rest of Ireland. The Protestant-loyalist majority overwhelmingly rejects Irish unity.
The breakthrough came when the Rev. Ian Paisley and James Molyneaux, the major unionist leaders, agreed to accept Mr. Brooke's formula for talks.
They had rejected holding negotiations until the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, giving Dublin a voice in Ulster's affairs as representative of the Catholic majority, was revoked or suspended. The participation of Dublin in any negotiations about the future of Northern Ireland was a major stumbling block during earlier efforts to get talks started.
In a major concession, Dublin dropped its insistence on early involvement.