Northern Ireland's terrorist groups from both sides of the sectarian divide have been invited to meet over the next two weeks for round-table talks aimed at breaking the impasse over decommissioning paramilitary weapons and explosives.
If the planned session takes place, it will be held amid a mood of rising optimism, boosted by the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two of the province's key politicians - Protestant First Minister-designate David Trimble and Catholic nationalist leader John Hume.
The peace award announced in Oslo last Friday is likely to put pressure on terrorist groups to accept a deal on arms decommissioning, enabling the Northern Ireland assembly to move toward formation of an executive body to rule the province beginning early next year.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Martin McGuinness, chief negotiator of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), are meeting today in London.
Mr. Blair was also planning to meet Mr. Trimble, who will attend a meeting next weekend of his Ulster Unionist Party, the largest political party in Northern Ireland. The arms issue will be high on the agenda.
Blair's officials say the prime minister is hoping the Nobel award will underline the need for continuing compromise on all key issues.
In two weeks, a North-South ministerial council to coordinate policies between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is due to be set up.
Blair's officials say progress in coming days on paramilitary arms could make it easier to persuade Trimble and other Unionists to cooperate over the North-South council. So far they have been suspicious that the body would give the Dublin government excessive influence over Northern Ireland affairs.
The latest bid to break the deadlock over arms comes after significant withdrawals of British troops, the closure of army security posts, and the release of Catholic and Protestant paramilitary prisoners.
Sources close to Canadian Gen. John de Chastelain, head of the decommissioning body under the Belfast peace agreement, say the proposed round-table talks, if they materialize, are certain to be tough and protracted. But the sources detect possible signs of movement by the IRA, which so far has resisted attempts to persuade it to hand over its arms.
One possible compromise being proposed is that, rather than surrender its weapons and explosives, the IRA would agree to destroy them in the presence of neutral observers appointed by General de Chastelain.
Political analysts in Ireland suggest that by putting Trimble squarely in the world spotlight, the Nobel award will increase pressure on him to adopt an accommodating line if Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams does offer a deal on arms.
"Becoming a Nobel laureate will make it harder for Mr. Trimble to resist Sinn Fein membership of the Northern Ireland government," wrote Northern Ireland analyst Deaglan de Breadun Saturday in Dublin's Irish Times.
He noted that the award to Trimble could influence Unionist thinking in a constructive way.
"Nationalists and republicans have been 'adopted' internationally almost from the beginning of the Troubles," Mr. de Breadun wrote. "Unionists on the other hand have never been world darlings, and have generally found themselves lumped with the Afrikaners and Israelis as a distinctly untrendy community under siege."
The award of the peace prize to Trimble may also strengthen his position as leader of the Ulster Unionists. Many senior UUP members are critical of his readiness to enter the Belfast accord.
The chief focus of the planned meeting on decommissioning will be a nine-point document to terrorist groups.
Sources close to de Chastelain say the document suggests two possible methods of decommissioning: Either the paramilitaries could reveal where arms dumps are and de Chastelain's officers could destroy them, or the terrorists could undertake to destroy weapons themselves on condition that the process was monitored.
Mr. Adams and McGuinness have already hinted that they prefer the second option. Most of the IRA's arms dumps are believed to be in the Irish Republic, near the border with Northern Ireland.
Media comment in Britain and Ireland has generally approved of the Nobel award to Trimble and Mr. Hume. Some commentators, however, have expressed fears that it could raise public expectations too high and that disappointment could result in the longer term.
Trimble himself, who was in the United States wooing business investment in Northern Ireland when the Nobel announcement was made, said he hoped the award was not "premature."
Longtime Northern Ireland reporter Paul Vallely commented in the London Observer on Sunday: "Just when everything seemed to be staggering on as smoothly as anything ever could in Northern Ireland, along comes the Nobel Peace Prize, like some awful harbinger of doom."
Mr. Vallely argued that often in the past the Nobel committee had awarded the prize not to acknowledge actual success in the pursuit of peace, but to help a peace process along.
He cited the joint award in 1994 to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israel's Yitzhak Rabin as an example of the committee trying to assist a negotiating process rather than to reward the accomplishment of peace itself.
In 1977 two Northern Ireland women were awarded the Nobel peace prize for their efforts to bridge the province's sectarian gulf, but soon afterward major violence erupted and continued for another 18 years.