BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Multiparty talks on the future of Northern Ireland opened here yesterday in an atmosphere of cautious optimism and under a veil of political secrecy.
All participants have taken a virtual vow of silence for the duration of the talks, expected to be 10 weeks.
No interim progress will be announced before final agreement is reached in the effort to end two decades of sectarian violence that has left 3,000 dead.
The leaders of the mainly Roman Catholic Social Democratic and Labor Party were first yesterday to meet with Britain's Secretary for Northern Ireland Peter Brooke, who has spent the past 17 months putting the talks together. They were followed by leaders of the minority non-sectarian Alliance Party.
Mr. Brooke will meet Friday with pro-British unionist leaders before leading next week's historic session of all the parties.
No details of the opening exchanges were divulged, except that they were an attempt to outline an agenda for next week, the first face-to-face meeting in 17 years among most of the parties in the British-ruled province.
Sinn Fein, the legal political wing of the outlawed Irish Republican Army, was excluded because it supports violence.
A lone loyalist picketed the meeting at the Stormount Parliament building outside Belfast. He was protesting against any role for Dublin in the talks. "You will never get your hands on Ulster soil. Ulster will remain British at the end of your little dialogue," he shouted at John Hume, leader of the SDLP.
The Irish government will be invited to join the talks once the political parties of the north have agreed on internal relations.