PROTESTANT and Roman Catholic politicians in Northern Ireland were planning to sit down together today and talk formally to each other for the first time since the mid-1970s. The talks, which are scheduled to last for 10 weeks, have been arranged by the British government and are being held at Stormont Castle in Belfast. Their declared aim is to end the deep-seated religious and political enmities that have caused the deaths of nearly 3,000 people in 22 years of nonstop sectarian violence.
But according to sources in London, the meetings also have a less-public second aim: to isolate and marginalize the men and women of violence in the troubled province by proving to the war-weary public of Northern Ireland that political negotiations are the only way to bring the era of the ``troubles'' to an end.
Under the guiding hand of Peter Brooke, Britain's Northern Ireland secretary, who has worked doggedly for 15 months to bring the two sides together, the round-table talks are intended to become more complex as they proceed. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the outlawed Irish Republic Army, has been excluded from the negotiations.
A British official said at the weekend: ``Government ministers will meet first with nationalist [i.e., mainly Roman Catholic] representatives. Then James Molyneaux and the Rev. Ian Paisley, the leaders of the two [Protestant] Unionist parties, will be invited to join in. If all goes well, there will be talks, probably in June, between the Ulster [or Northern Ireland] politicians and representatives from Dublin.''
Beyond outlining the conference arrangements, officials were prepared to say little, stressing that to do so might unravel Mr. Brooke's so-far-successful attempts to achieve a series of meetings, which a few months ago most of the planned participants were saying would be impossible.
According to officials in London, Brooke hopes to demonstrate that the mutual fears and suspicions of the Northern Ireland's Unionists and the nationalists can be held in check during a series of carefully monitored political exchanges.
He is gambling on enough progress being made to make it possible for the parties in Northern Ireland and the governments in London and Dublin to confront the two questions that lie at the heart of the violence.
Those questions are: First, what alternative form of government can be found for Northern Ireland, which has been ruled directly from London for the past 17 years? Second, what will its future relationship be with the rest of the United Kingdom and with the Irish Republic?
IN an apparent attempt to improve the atmosphere for the talks, Dublin government ministers have raised the possibility lately that a major obstacle to an agreement could be removed. Irish Foreign Minister Gerry Collins hinted last week that his government might be prepared to modify two articles of the Irish Constitution which lay territorial claim to Northern Ireland.
Unionists, who insist that Northern Ireland must remain part of the United Kingdom, have consistently said that so long as the two articles remain unchanged, progress in the Brooke initiative will be impossible.
Brooke's officials are saying privately that they hope that during the early phase of the round-table talks the Dublin government will signify its readiness to drop the territorial claim.
Hopes that this will happen rose at the weekend when Desmond O'Malley, the Dublin government's industry and commerce minister, said his government would have ``an open mind'' on scrapping the territorial claim to Northern Ireland.
To make the talks possible, Brooke had to make a major concession. He agreed to suspend the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, which concedes the right of the Dublin government to a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland.
Protestant representatives, who have continued to attack the 1985 agreement, refused to attend the Stormont meeting unless the offending document was put on hold.
In the run-up to the series of round-table meetings Brooke remained deliberately taciturn. Last week, however, he said he believed that ``those who participate in democratic talks will see off the terrorists.''
His officials say the most sensitive part of the talks will be attempts to find common ground on the future role of the Dublin government in Northern Ireland.
A British source close to the talks said: ``This is a high-wire venture. It could go terribly wrong, but so far nothing has. We are hoping that the desire for peace on the part of the vast majority of the Northern Ireland population, Catholic and Protestant, will communicate itself to all directly concerned in the talks.''