History was made in Northern Ireland in June when leaders of the main constitutional parties sat down together to talk about the future of the province for the first time since the mid-seventies. The venue was Stormont, on the outskirts of Belfast, where our political correspondent Andrew Whitehead positioned himself to watch the comings and goings:
Stormont Parliament building exercises a brooding a not altogether benevolent presence. It's an imposing edifice. Squat, colonnaded, positively colonial in appearance. The big house on the hill. Approached along a broad tree-lined avenue, and up an enormous flight of steps. A shimmering white on those rare occasions when the sun comes out; when I commiserated with a policeman stationed outside, he smiled and described the steady drizzle as Irish sunshine.
Stormont was opened as recently as 1932 - with a political purpose in mind. It has been described as "the corporate expression of embattled Unionism". When, in the early Twenties, Northern Ireland successfully resisted incorporation into the newly independent Irish Republic - or the Irish Free State as it was then known - it was granted its own devolved Assembly. "A Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people", as James Craig described Stormont in 1932. Which goes a long way to explaining why Roman Catholics, who make up over a third of the province's population, never felt comfortable with the institution.
It's almost twenty years since the Stormont Parliament was pro-rogued and direct rule from London imposed on the province. The chamber is ready and waiting, it could be taken out of mothballs at a few days' notice, should Northern Ireland's politicians agree on restoring devolved government. That's what they were talking about round an oval-shaped table in a Stormont conference room. The four main constitutional parties gathered together for the first time since the mid-Seventies.
Not that the auguries were good. The leaders of both Unionist parties came to prominence as opponents of the power-sharing executive so briefly installed back in 1994, each outbidding the other in intransigence. On the other side, the main nationalist party, the SDLP, admits it has no great appetite for devolution, valuing, above all, an Ireland-wide dimension in the government of the province.
The procedural rows which delayed the talks for six weeks - over items of such arcane perplexity that few local people even attempted to understand what it was all about - spilled over again into the opening session. Just two hours after party leaders trooped into Stormont, the considerable figure of Ian Paisley - leader of the Democratic Unionist party - walked out. He was still refusing to give his blessing to the choice of a former Australian Governor-General, Sir Ninian Stephen, as an independent chairman for the second stage. Each party had its own office, phones, and fax machine inside Stormont. But no, Mr Paisley had to make personal enquiries. An hour later he was back, satisfied, and the talks finally got underway. A piece of political theatre: intended to demonstrate that nothing happens unless the Reverend Paisley says o.
Suspicion runs deep in Northern Ireland. The next day the Belfast evening newspaper bore the headline: 'Sir Ninian in a new shock'. It seemed that the inoffensive Sir Ninian had, a few years ago as part of his official duties, met the Prime Minister of the Irish Republic, Charles Haughey. Not only that,. Sir Ninian confided to the Belfast Telegraph, they had got on well. To some Northern Protestants, who regard Mr Haughey with even less affection that they do the Pope, this seemed sinister indeed. Yet if these talks continue as planned, then Protestant politicians will have to sit down at Stormont - the citadel of Northern Unionism - with Mr Haughey, the man who once described Northern Ireland as "a failed political entity". But there is little as yet to demonstrate that the politicians are willing, not simply to talk to each other, but to make the sort of concessions from which a settlement could be fashioned.