TWO senior unionist politicians, Mr David Trimble and Mr Peter Robinson, are to attend an all party conference on Northern Ireland in South Africa this weekend. But while there, they insist, they will have no contact with Sinn Fein, which is also attending.
Leading representatives of the Ulster Unionist Party and the DUP have agreed to attend the conference on the basis of guarantees that they will be "hermetically sealed off" from the Sinn Fein delegation, which will be led by the party's chief negotiator, Mr Martin McGuinness.
The purpose of the conference is to allow politicians to observe the parallels between Northern Ireland and South Africa and to learn how their South African counterparts resolved political differences.
Most of the parties are flying out to South Africa today for the conference, which is to be held on a game reserve. However, even on the flights it is expected that a form of "apartheid" will be in effect, as the mainstream unionists and Sinn Fein delegations are travelling by different routes.
The Ulster Unionist delegation is due to be led by Mr Trimble and will also include the new MP for Lagan Valley, Mr Jeffrey Donaldson. The DUP members include the deputy leader, Mr Robinson, and the party's security spokesman, Mr Gregory Campbell, who according to the party are travelling in their "individual and personal capacities".
Mr Donaldson said unionists had received assurances that they would be "hermetically sealed" from Sinn Fein. Mr Robinson added that he was travelling to the conference on the basis that there will be a strict "apartheid system" separating unionists from Sinn Fein.
The Sinn Fein team led by Mr McGuinness also includes two members of its talks team, Mr Gerry Kelly and Ms Siobhan O'Hanlon, and the party's Dublin based director of publicity, Ms Rita O'Hare.
The Ministry for Provincial Affairs in South Africa is hosting the conference which is being organised by Prof Padraig O'Malley of the John W. McCormack Institute of Public Affairs of the University of Massachusetts.
Mr McGuinness said Sinn Fein was approaching the conference in a positive and constructive frame of mind. "We intend to talk to as many people as possible and to learn from their experience. South Africa saw one of those conflicts which was allegedly intractable, yet was resolved. We have much to learn from this process of transition," he added.
The organisers gave assurances that all parties need not be "physically present" in the same conference facilities as Sinn Fein.
The Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party are also sending representatives. Mr Billy Hutchinson, who is attending with his PUP colleague, Mr David Ervine, said that while his party would not share platforms with Sinn Fein he had no difficulty in being in the same room as Sinn Fein members.
Most other parties, including the SDLP, Alliance and Women's Coalition, are also attending the conference, which ends almost on the eve of the Northern Ireland multiparty talks, which resume at Stormont on Tuesday.