Talking to dissident republicans - is it the next step?

Should the mainstream Stormont parties engage in dialogue with dissident republicans?

Would such a process serve any purpose, or simply provide such factions with, what Margaret Thatcher, much in the news this week, used to refer to as, the "oxygen of publicity"?

On Friday's BBC Radio Ulster Nolan show the DUP and Sinn Fein took different views. Discussing the attempted murder of an off-duty soldier by the faction which styles itself "Oglaigh na hEirrean", the North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds warned that dialogue could prove counter-productive and dangerous.

Sinn Fein's Gerry Kelly disagreed, pointing to the development of the peace process as proof that dialogue is always beneficial.

On Inside Politics on Sunday I talked to the Republican Network for Unity's Martin Og Meehan. The former IRA prisoner told me his network doesn't support armed struggle. Nevertheless, he would not condemn the activities of dissident groups like Oglaigh na hEirrean.

Last year the RNU's Ard Fheis sent what it called "comradely greetings" to Oglaigh na hEirrean and backed the right of the Irish people to engage in what it terms "disciplined resistance".

The network has represented some dissident republican prisoners in the current dirty protest at Maghaberry jail and was behind last month's daubing of excrement on the doors of the Alliance party's headquarters in south Belfast.

Mr Meehan said he was in favour of dialogue, arguing that a refusal to talk only leads to anarchy. But he seemed to give little sense that the dissidents are ready to change their analysis.

Instead he made frequent references to 800 years of Irish history and the inevitability of armed attacks. When I pointed out that the vast majority of people have made it clear they want politics to be purely peaceful, the RNU spokesman at one point referred to those who held that view as "sheep".

On the prisons, Mr Meehan accused the authorities of reneging on an agreement reached in August 2010. The dispute is about the use of full body searches. Mr Meehan says that if the Northern Ireland Prison Service used the same kind of scanning equipment and chair as employed at Portlaoise jail the dispute could be resolved.

Currently the authorities at Maghaberry use a so called "BOSS chair" to scan prisoners moving around the complex, but reserve the right to conduct body searches when prisoners enter the jail from outside.

Independent mediators helped to broker the August 2010 deal and have been working on a resolution of the dirty protest. It is possible that, with the help of the latest technology, progress can be achieved on the prison dispute, but whether any wider dialogue with dissidents would prove productive remains unclear.

If you didn't hear the RNU interview you can hear it here. It claims it's a programme called Belleek and Beyond, but it sounds like Inside Politics to me!