The talks are to open in Belfast on Monday amid uncertainty and controversy over whether Sinn Fein should be admitted and whether the Ulster Unionists will attend. There will inevitably be much turbulence in the weeks ahead, but almost everyone expects that they will eventually get down to business.
It could all run into the sand, as have so many initiatives over the course of The Troubles, but it could also be the beginning of a whole new era.
If the negotiations develop momentum, much will depend on the personalities and skills of the politicians and diplomats involved.
But much will also depend on the state of opinion in the two communities, which are separated by such a vast gulf in the way they look at the world. One example of this, seen just this week, was the opinion poll finding that while two-thirds of Catholics think the IRA ceasefire will hold, only one Protestant in 10 agrees with them. And to quote just one other example of the stark difference in attitudes: 87 per cent of Catholics disapprove of plastic bullets, while 86 per cent of Protestants approve of them.
Clearly, compromise is vital if the talks are to succeed or even make substantial progress. An examination of the current state of opinion within the two communities may shed light on how far their political representatives may feel able to go in the negotiations ahead.
Northern nationalists are divided into two distinct parts: the constitutionalists who oppose violence and the republicans who have used it or approved of it. Both sets regard the talks as a promising opportunity to advance their objectives.
Practically all constitutional nationalists vote for John Hume's SDLP, which regularly collects well over half the votes cast by Catholics. It thus speaks for the Catholic middle class and much of the working class.
The people it represents basically want peace, a more equal Northern Ireland, a recognition of their Irishness and the opportunity to advance towards a united Ireland - or rather, in Mr Hume's often-repeated phrase, an agreed Ireland.
To generalise: they regard themselves as a community gradually emerging from a history of anti-Catholic discrimination, not yet living in a completely fair society. On one level they regard themselves as having become empowered socially, politically, economically and numerically.
Catholics and nationalists have moved up the social and economic ladder as avenues of employment which were once closed gradually opened to them. Making advances which would have seemed inconceivable a few decades ago, they now for example occupy many key posts in the public sector.
Politically, in John Hume and Gerry Adams they have internationally known leaders. Numerically, they have increased from one-third to at least 43 per cent. Their fortunes have thus been transformed since their pre-1969 days of dolefully impotent isolation.
Yet there are still burrs under the saddle. Some businesses and some districts remain closed to them. Some institutions, notably the Royal Ulster Constabulary, continue for whatever reasons to have a predominantly Protestant complexion.
SDLP supporters thus look to talks as an opportunity to consolidate their advances and if possible build upon them. In anything that emerges from talks they will be looking for more moves towards equality and more guarantees of their civil rights; they will also want to ensure that no new obstacles are erected towards Irish unity in the longer term.
A Catholic lawyer summarised: "This place is over 40 per cent Catholic, which means it's over 40 per cent nationalist, which means it's over 40 per cent Irish. I want to see the British acknowledging that, and it would be nice if we could get Unionists acknowledging it too."
The general sense among constitutional nationalists is that they have potentially much to gain from talks, and little enough to fear. Confidence in John Hume is high, while the continuing involvement of Dublin and Washington acts as additional reassurance that their interests will be looked after.
As for the people of the south, they have a similar though not quite identical instinct to that of northern nationalists. People there want to see a fair deal in the north, though most of all they want stability and a final end to the violence. Irish unity remains the longer-term aspiration.
The hardest-line nationalists are of course Sinn Fein and the IRA. With the Sinn Fein vote having increased by leaps and bounds, most recently to 17 per cent, it is plain that Gerry Adams is selling something which more and more nationalist voters wish to buy.
The vital test of his leadership will come, some time in the next few years, when it is seen whether he brings his supporters towards settling, in the meantime at least, for something less than their cherished goal of a united Ireland. Sinn Fein leaders talk often of a united Ireland but they also from time to time use phrases such as "interim settlement".
Sinn Fein's constituency consists in large part of the urban dispossessed who live in the poorest parts of Belfast, Londonderry and elsewhere and who have largely missed out on the betterment enjoyed by the Catholic middle class and upper working class.
While more Catholics are in work, often in good jobs, ghetto unemployment remains high. Parts of west and north Belfast, for example, have high levels of joblessness, paramilitary involvement and resulting security force attentions, together with general deprivation and alienation.
The product has been tightly knit hyper-politicised local communities which find political expression in Sinn Fein and, often, in the IRA. Extremism is common enough here, but so too are high levels of pragmatic realism.
As the troubles dragged on, it became evident to a majority there that IRA guns and bombs were not going to bring about British withdrawal and a united Ireland. There is a sober recognition that talks will not accomplish what terrorism could not, and it is difficult to find anyone who believes a united Ireland lies at the end of these talks.
What is important to them, however, is that something tangible should emerge from the talks on two fronts: first, in terms of the inclusion of republicans in any new political and economic arrangements, and second, an assurance that the road to eventual Irish unity will not be blocked.
While it is possible to package Irish nationalists reasonably tidily into the two pigeonholes of Sinn Fein and the SDLP, the picture on the Protestant side is much more fractured and confused. The spread of opinion was vividly illustrated in last year's forum elections in which David Trimble's Ulster Unionists took 46 per cent of the Unionist vote. Forty-three per cent went to the Rev Ian Paisley and his close associate Robert McCartney, while 10 per cent went to the two loyalist parties which have paramilitary links.
Mr Paisley and Mr McCartney are anti-talks; the loyalists are pro-talks; the Ulster Unionists are taking months to make up their minds. Outside the strictly political sphere, senior business and church elements very much favour negotiation. But grassroots Protestants, according to the opinion polls and anecdotal evidence, seem markedly in favour of dialogue, with more than half of Ulster Unionist supporters actually urging face- to-face talks between their leaders and Sinn Fein. A much larger majority baulks at face-to-face meetings but still wants participation in talks.
This is new. Unionists have traditionally been suspicious of dialogue and negotiation, even with constitutional nationalists. Finding now that they want their leaders to go eyeball-to-eyeball with Gerry Adams is a complete departure. Many, probably most, Unionist politicians tend, however, to take a different view. They look at the talks lineup, note that Unionists will be up against the SDLP, Sinn Fein and the Dublin government, and conclude that the talks are unlikely to produce a result that would strengthen the union with Britain and the Protestant cause.
But the prevailing sentiments in the Protestant community seem to be that the ceasefires are there to be built on, that if the parties don't talk, London and Dublin will get together and assemble a package anyway, and that the best way to represent Unionist interests is to be at the table. This is a quite startling change of perspective for a community which has lost much political power over recent decades and watched its once-comfortable majority in the country slipping away. Its people have lacked a clear goal to aim for and the chances of forging stronger links with Britain seem remote.
The peace process began as a nationalist phenomenon, arising from activity within Sinn Fein, the SDLP and Dublin. But its emphasis on dialogue appears to have crossed the political divide and taken root within Unionism. The potential Paisley influence in all this should not, however, be underestimated. Although more and more voices are to be heard saying it is time to talk and make a new start, there are still many arguing that the ancient enemies - the IRA, Rome and British duplicity - remain as much of a menace as ever.
The debate is still going on. "I just don't believe there could be a pro-union outcome from these negotiations," said one Unionist. "We need to be in there," said another, "because if you're not in you can't win. I just think it's time to go in and face down Adams and Sinn Fein." Paradoxically, it is the former paramilitants, many of whom have been to jail for loyalist terrorist offences, who privately most favour the idea of dialogue: there is a sense of having learned the hard way that jaw-jaw may be preferable to war-war.
The history of the Unionist political mainstream is littered with examples of leaders who, defying Paisleyite wrath, contemplated making a deal with nationalism. Nearly all who did so ended up wrecking their careers, while those who stayed in the trenches have tended to have the longest political lives. This time, however, a perhaps unprecedentedly large section of Unionist opinion seems to favour making a leap of the imagination and opting for talks. This may, in other words, be the moment so many British ministers and Irish nationalists have dreamed of for decades: the moment when Protestant opinion finally propels its representatives into making a deal.Reuse content