BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- For the first time in 17 years, leaders of Ulster's feuding unionist and republican traditions will open talks today on a new political future for the strife-torn province.
Over the next 10 weeks, they will try to end the sectarian violence that has left 3,000 dead over the past two decades of "The Troubles."
Their difficult quest: to find a formula for the peaceful, local government of Northern Ireland.
The province has been controlled by the British Parliament since the provincial legislature at Stormount was abolished in 1972 in the face of unionist (Protestant) refusal to share power with the republicans (Catholics).
Despite repeated efforts at compromise, the two sides remain far apart.
Britain's Secretary for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke is sponsoring this new round of talks. The Irish government of Prime Minister Charles Haughey stands ready to join the table "at the right moment." It will be the first time the unionist leaders have ever sat down with Irish leaders.
Dublin ministers have opened the prospect of changing the republic's constitution, deleting or amending two articles that particularly offend the unionists by laying claim to the north as an integral part of a united Ireland.
Des O'Malley, minister for industry and commerce who will be one of the Irish negotiators, said that the Dublin government now had "an open mind" about dropping its claim to the north.
"It was not a great surprise," said a British official yesterday. "There have been indications over the past years that quite a lot of the Irish constitution is no longer thought by some to be appropriate to modern needs."
A recent poll showed that four out of five voters in the Irish Republic would be willing to postpone unity in return for an "internal settlement" in Ulster. But the poll also showed that an overwhelming majority of Irish voters still see unity as "something to hope for."
Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution long have been rejected by the Ulster unionists, who favor continuing the links they have had with Britain since 1800.
As a prelude to the talks, the Official Unionist Party laid down this marker: "It is our contention that the only difference between Northern
Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom is the harsh, aggressive, irredentist claim from a neighboring foreign country to jurisdiction over the territory and people of Northern Ireland contrary to international law."
Dublin already has a limited voice in the affairs of Ulster as a representative of the Catholic minority under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement.
The unionists, who were not consulted about the agreement for fear they would scuttle it, have made it clear that its abrogation is their "paramount objective" in the current talks.
Today's opening round of talks will be between the British and the parties of Northern Ireland, the Catholic-republicans and the Protestant-unionists. They will set the agenda.
The republicans will be represented by the Social Democratic and Labor Party of Catholic moderates. Sinn Fein, the political arm of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, will not be involved because it refuses to renounce violence.
A British official, involved in the negotiations, said: "There is quite a general sense of weariness in Northern Ireland. People are fed up with the sterility of the past 15 years."