The meeting, which is expected to take place in the next two or three weeks, will involve David Trimble's Ulster Unionist Party and Archbishop Sean Brady, the Catholic Primate of All Ireland,.
It is thought it will be the first formal encounter between these two important elements. Its significance lies both in this lack of precedent and in the fact that it is part of a consultation process undertaken by the party before it makes the crucial decision on whether to join far- reaching talks on Northern Ireland's future in a month's time.
Assuming the IRA's ceasefire continues to hold, the Government is expected to announce that Sinn Fein will be allowed at the talks table. This means the Ulster Unionists, Northern Ireland's largest party, will then face the momentous decision on whether to participate in a process which includes their traditionally deadly enemies.
The general impression of most observers is that a majority of the Protestant population is ready to contemplate direct contacts with Sinn Fein, with most church leaders and captains of industry strongly in favour of talks. But this is by no means a unanimous sentiment, with opinion sharply divided within the realms of Unionist political activists. The two next largest Unionist parties, the Rev Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists and the UK Unionists, are very much opposed to direct contacts, though even in these quarters there is the possibility of agreement to take part in "proximity talks" in which participants need not actually come face to face.
The meeting with Catholic churchmen is to take place at Archbishop Brady's residence in Armagh city, with a number of bishops and some lay people also expected to attend.
Reg Empey of the Ulster Unionists said yesterday: "We are undertaking a widespread community consultation exercise with the broader community and within our own party. We are speaking to all the main churches and to a very large number of community-based organisations, as well as senior business representatives."
Meanwhile, members of a loyalist order yesterday called off plans to march through the Catholic Lower Ormeau Road in Belfast. A Royal Black Preceptory church parade on Sunday and a second at the end of the month before a big demonstration in Lurgan, Co Armagh, will stop short of the area. Leaders of the City of Belfast Grand Black Chapter said the decision was made "under regrettable duress" because they feared trouble could be caused by nationalists opposed to the marches.Reuse content