The new contact, together with noticeably upbeat remarks made yesterday by Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams, has stirred renewed speculation that a second formal cessation of IRA violence is possible.
Most observers, however, tend to believe this is likely to happen on a timescale of months rather than weeks. There are also fears that the delicate manoeuvring could be blown off course by street disturbances as the loyalist marching season gets under way.
The last major act of IRA violence in Northern Ireland took place on 10 April when a woman police officer, Reserve-Constable Alice Collins, was shot and seriously injured in Londonderry in what was clearly a murder attempt. Since then IRA terrorism has simply ceased, according to security sources.
The rate of republican "punishment beatings" has also dropped sharply. While earlier in the year these were almost a nightly occurrence, the sources say republicans have carried out only three of these in the last three weeks. It is unclear whether these three were the work of the IRA or some other republican faction.
In Britain there has been some IRA disruption of road and rail communications since the policewoman's shooting, but this activity ceased some days before the general election on 1 May. These patterns have been closely studied by the authorities, and facilitated Tony Blair's offer of talks with republicans.
In making the offer during his visit to Belfast last week Mr Blair said: "I am prepared to allow officials to meet Sinn Fein provided events on the ground, here and elsewhere, do not make that impossible." This appears to be a clear warning that any reappearance of violence in advance of today's meeting would cause its cancellation or postponement.
The IRA has occasionally eased off its violence in the run-up to elections so as not to put off potential Sinn Fein voters, but it is rare for it to call a complete halt. Voting takes place today in Northern Ireland's council elections, and the Republic's general election is due early next month.
The undeclared ceasefire might therefore be characterised simply as a tactical electoral pause, but it seems highly likely that it had the double purpose of smoothing the way for Mr Blair's invitation. No one is confident whether, or how long, the undeclared ceasefire will last. Some observers speculate that if it does it will allow republicans to argue that the IRA has already moved some way to fulfil the government demand that it should demonstrate its sincerity about peace "by word and deed."
Today's meeting is expected to take place within the Stormont government complex in east Belfast, with Martin McGuinness, newly elected as MP for Mid-Ulster, leading the Sinn Fein delegation. Quentin Thomas, who as political director is the second most senior civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office, is expected to lead the government team.Reuse content