The first face-to-face talks between the Orange Order and residents of Garvaghy Road in Drumcree are likely to take place next month, seeking a lasting solution to the province's most controversial march.
Since 1988, the Garvaghy Road Residents Coalition has successfully opposed the contentious parade, which traditionally brought Orangemen past Catholic homes on their return journey from a church service.
Until now the Portadown Number 1 District Lodge, which organises the march, has refused to talk directly to residents. Orange leaders have used a variety of pretexts, including the fact that members of Sinn Féin and republican ex-prisoners were involved in the residents' group.
Portadown Orangemen have also refused to talk to the Parades Commission, which adjudicates on the march, instead demanding that it be abolished.
Yesterday, however, Darryl Hewitt, the order's district master in Portadown, revealed that his members have changed their minds about talking to residents and the Parades Commission.
"We are now willing to enter face-to-face talks with the Garvaghy Road residents and the only condition is that there is an independent chairman," Hewitt said.
"There is absolutely no catch. We are willing to enter talks with no preconditions. We are also in dialogue with the Parades Commission and have given it the names of eight people who could act as chairman or mediator, the term is irrelevant."
The names proposed by the Orangemen cover a wide spectrum of opinion. They include Albert Reynolds, the former taoiseach, and John Major, the former British prime minister.
Others are Brendan Duddy, a businessman who has mediated between the IRA and the British government; Duncan Morrow, the chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council; Denis Bradley, a former priest and mediator; Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, the former head of the Northern Ireland civil service; Baron Eames, former head of the Church of Ireland; and Brian Currin, a South African lawyer who tried to mediate between the Orange Order and the residents in 2000 and 2001.
None of them has been approached as yet. Privately, Orangemen think that Reynolds or Currin are the most likely to be acceptable to the residents and to be available.
Currin withdrew from his previous mediation attempts in December 2001 after the Portadown Orangemen said that they did not trust the residents and withdrew from dialogue.
Currin said then that "in any mediation, where there is no trust there cannot be a successful process". That was taken as an indication that he would return if trust was ever established.
Hewitt's statement was given a guarded welcome by Padraigin Drinan, a human rights lawyer who represents Garvaghy Road residents. Hewitt told last Sunday's Orange rally at Drumcree that "we are committed to face-to-face talks under an independent chairman".
Drinan said it had not been clear who the talks would be with or what he meant. After years of misunderstandings, both sides are cautious.
In response to Hewitt's clarification, she said: "We don't negotiate through the press, but we have a positive attitude in going through the process. Experience has taught us that it is better to have matters clarified.
"We are willing to have face-to-face talks; we have been for 10 years."
The residents are likely to seek the involvement of a body such as the Mediation Network as a guarantor of good faith. Hewitt said he had no objection to the Mediation Network being involved, or any other body "as long as they are independent".
"We are all supposed to listen and to be open to each other's point of view, so let's hope that approach can resolve the impasse in Portadown."