LONDON -- For the first time since the partition of Ireland more than 70 years ago, top officials of the Irish Republic have sat down at a negotiating table with leaders of the predominantly Protestant Unionist parties of Northern Ireland.
At issue in the talks, which were also attended by British officials and leaders of other parties from the North, is the political future of the troubled province.
"I very much hope that everyone will prove up to the magnitude of the occasion and proceed in a sensible and workmanlike way," said Sir Patrick Mayhew, Britain's minister in charge of Northern Ireland.
Whether the talks, being conducted here under intense security, will get anywhere remains highly questionable. The aims of the ++ participants remain irreconcilable, at least on the surface.
The unionist politicians from Ulster are demanding that the Irish Republic revoke the article in its constitution that stakes the republic's claim of sovereignty over the Northern six counties.
On the other hand, Irish officials are saying that the government in Dublin must be given some role in overseeing decisions made in Belfast, particularly those decisions that affect the province's Roman Catholic minority.
But few here thought the day would come when such a man as the outspoken, radical Unionist Ian Paisley would sit down voluntarily with the likes of John Wilson, deputy prime minister of the Irish Republic.
That day came yesterday.
Also attending were James Molyneaux, leader of the more moderate Official Unionist Party; John Hume, chief of the Social Democratic and Labor Party, which is predominantly Catholic, and John Alderice, who heads the Alliance Party, the one political group that attempts to straddle Ulster's great sectarian divide.
Missing from the talks, which are being chaired by a retired Australian official, were members of Sinn Fein, political wing of the Irish Republican Army, which is seeking to drive the British out of the province. British officials have banned Sinn Fein from the talks, citing the party's refusal to forswear violence.