THE latest phase of the three-strand talks about the future of Northern Ireland either "has collapsed" or "has been concluded," depending on where one takes one's reading of events, from the headlines or from diplomatic sources.
No, the talks did not reach a comprehensive settlement of the question of governing the six counties of the North. But for the first time since the partition of Ireland in the 1920s, unionist leaders sat down with ministers from the Dublin government. This historic fact should not be minimized.
That said, however, we must also note that once the whole talks process moved from the procedural to the substantive, and the various parties set forth their positions, the width of the divide between them only became more apparent. The discovery of unexpected areas of common ground that one might have wished, if not hoped for, did not occur.
Still, scoping out the breadth of a disagreement, finding out which positions a party really holds to and which may be negotiable, can be valuable.
A next phase of talks is to be held in the new year, after a new Irish government has been established (Nov. 25 is election day) and has met with its British counterpart some time after mid-December.
The same "strands" approach will be taken as has been the case so far; that is, talks are to occur among constitutional parties in Northern Ireland (those seeking unification with the south, and those seeking to retain the link to Britain), between the north and south within Ireland, and between Dublin and London. And as is always the case in these situations, the informal contacts - quick conferences in the corridors - are at least as important as the formal ones.
Meanwhile, it is clearer than ever that a unilateral British military pullout from Northern Ireland would precipitate a civil war, and the Dublin government has every bit as much interest as London - indeed, more so - in preventing that.
Skeptics may well be right that the current negotiations have only a small chance of reaching a genuine political settlement to the Northern Ireland issue. But realists would have to counter that there is no chance of a settlement without such talks.