Britain has managed to pull off a coup of sorts by bringing leaders of the Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland to the conference table for 11 weeks of historic talks aimed at resolving decades of bitter, often violent, political-religious conflict in the area.

While there is a sense of cautious optimism at the sight of both sides sitting down together for the first time in 17 years, any concessions may be hard to achieve - if they are possible at all. At some point, if there is any progress, the southern Republic of Ireland may join the talks.The conference may succeed to some degree because it has no specific agenda. The idea is to explore possibilities. There is a growing sense of weariness throughout Northern Ireland with the years of violence by extremists on both sides. Since 1969, about 3,000 people have been killed.

Both sides appear to want a truce, an end to violence and a chance to put some of the old issues and hatreds on the shelf for a time in favor of just learning to live together.

The Irish troubles date back to the Middle Ages and domination by British kings. Over the centuries, part of that rule featured murderous sectarian warfare, persecutions and failed rebellions. In 1921, Britain granted independence to the 23 mostly Catholic southern counties of Ireland, creating the Dublin-based Republic of Ireland. The six heavily Protestant northern counties remained under British rule.

The south wants to absorb the north in a united Ireland and still claims the northern territory. The Irish Republican Army, a terrorist organization with about 200 or so members, has tried to use force as a way to bring about unification. Paramilitary Protestant organizations in the north have fought back with their own brand of terrorism.

One million Protestants in the north enjoy a 2-1 majority over Catholics and have no desire to join the southern republic where they would be outnumbered 4-1. Seventy years later, the British are still wrestling with this apparently intractable dilemma.

Sinn Fein, the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, and a much larger organization than the few hundred gunmen, has not been invited to the new talks because it refuses to renounce violence.

Back in 1971, unrest forced the British to dissolve the Parliament of Northern Ireland and the region has been ruled from London since then. This week's talks in Belfast could at least open the way for a return of self-government in Northern Ireland.

That may not seem like much, but in the harsh world of Irish politics and violence, it is a necessary first step. Progress of any kind would be a welcome change from the usual clashes that have wracked a beautiful land and its people.