Leading Article: Unionists lift taboo on talking

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THIS is a time for restatement of basics. Yesterday, leaders of Northern Ireland's two Unionist parties made a historic concession. They talked directly to ministers from the Republic of Ireland and agreed with them and Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, an agenda for further discussions.

The meeting was a breakthrough because it was the first occasion when all strands of legitimate Unionist opinion have been represented at talks with the Dublin government. As such the gathering represented one small, tentative, but essential step on the road towards a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Without an understanding between Dublin and the loyalists of Northern Ireland it is hard to envisage a lasting solution.

The meeting in London was hedged about with necessary qualifications. It will be of great importance in Unionist heartlands that their leaders are able to claim they were present merely as observers at talks conducted between two sovereign states. Similarly it is important to the Unionists that they entered the conference centre refusing to negotiate until the Republic's territorial claims over the rest of the island - embedded in articles two and three of its Constitution - are abandoned. To the other players, however, the encounter sent very different signals. It indicated de facto loyalist recognition of the reality that there is a broader, Irish dimension to the troubles of the Province.

This shift is welcome. In part it is a consequence of the new mood generated by the resignation of the Taoiseach, Charles Haughey, in February and by the subsequent re- election of a Conservative government in this country. The intransigence and incompetence that the old-guard Unionist politicians displayed last year were largely responsible for the fact that the talks, initiated by Peter Brooke, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, became dangerously bogged down.

James Molyneaux's Ulster Unionists opposed devolution and favoured greater integration into the United Kingdom. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists favoured maximum devolution. They were agreed only in their opposition to power-sharing. Yet they must be aware that power-sharing remains the key to any solution that would be acceptable to nationalist opinion, Westminster and Dublin. If they want to move away from direct rule, the direction to take is clear.

It is no secret that the Irish government would be delighted to be rid of articles two and three, at least in their present form. Some members of Albert Reynolds's administration would wish to see them redrafted as non-threatening statements of a continuing aspiration for Irish unity by consent. But constitutional changes would have to be subject to a referendum, and it is probable that alterations which could be presented as unilateral concessions to loyalist politicians would be voted down. To guarantee acceptance, any revision of the clauses would almost certainly have to be considered in the context of a package which included a new form of government for Northern Ireland.

Now that the taboo on talking has gone and Dublin and loyalist leaders are able to communicate directly, instead of using British ministers as messengers, it will be easier for a deal to be considered. But it would be wrong to expect rapid or certain progress.