Hope as Orangemen agree to talks on marching

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David McKittrick and Mary Dejevsky

A significant breakthrough in the Ulster marching crisis appeared to have been made last night when it was announced that, for the first time ever, leaders of the Orange Order are to hold formal talks with Catholic residents of Portadown, Co Armagh.

The unprecedented meeting is to be under the chairmanship of John Hume, the leader of the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party. Mr Hume, who yesterday met the Order's Grand Master, Robert Saulters, said he regarded the development as a very significant breakthrough.

If successful, the move will help diffuse mounting tensions about the loyalist marching season which reaches its height in July. Last year, a confrontation at Drumcree, near Portadown, escalated into widespread disorder over much of Ulster.

Since becoming Grand Master last year Mr Saulters, who was generally regarded as a hardliner, has significantly softened the Order's approach on meeting Catholic residents in disputed marching areas. The Order traditionally took a stern line ruling out dialogue with residents' groups, alleging many of them were infiltrated by Sinn Fein. Mr Hume said last night that he hoped to chair the meeting between Mr Saulters and other senior Orangemen, together with members of the Garvaghy Road Residents' Association in the very near future.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein's new MPs, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, will today present themselves at Westminster as Irish equivalents of Black Rod, ceremonially demanding entrance in the certain knowledge that they will be turned away.

The Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, has already decreed that the pair should not be given access to any of the facilities of Parliament on the grounds that they will not take the oath of allegiance to the Queen.

While this encounter may capture headlines, much work is going on behind the scenes for the meeting between Sinn Fein and officials which was sanctioned by Tony Blair last week.

Officials telephoned Sinn Fein on Saturday to begin making arrangements for the meeting, which may take place this week.

Also on Saturday, Sinn Fein held its first meeting for months with Irish officials. The pace is therefore quickening as the governments seek a second IRA ceasefire. Martin McGuinness, the party's chief negotiator, said yesterday: "What we have to do is establish ... whether or not we are going to have on offer a real and meaningful and credible process of peace negotiations, and if we can establish that then we might have a case to put persuasively to the IRA. We will be in a position at that stage

Baroness Thatcher yesterday attacked Tony Blair's decision to reopen talks without conditions. Speaking in the United States, she said: "I do not like it ... You do not talk to people who support violence without getting an undertaking from them that that violence will cease."