When they met in London yesterday, John Major and the Taoiseach, John Bruton, affirmed there is much common ground between them. But the two governments could not reach agreement on the crucial question of whether to guarantee republicans that another ceasefire would bring them into negotiations.
Mr Major outlined the common ground when he declared: "We are united in wishing to see a credible ceasefire," and said both governments wanted to see Sinn Fein taking part in inclusive talks.
The gap lies in what should follow a new ceasefire. Dublin's position, set out again yesterday, is that another cessation along the lines of that announced in August 1994, together with a public Sinn Fein commitment to democratic principles, should be enough to guarantee republican entry into negotiations.
In a direct appeal to the IRA made after the Downing Street meeting, Mr Bruton said: "Why not [call] a ceasefire now? I would say to the republican movement - those in Sinn Fein are people of ability. They should have nothing to fear in sitting down at the table to discuss their future with all their neighbours in Northern Ireland. They don't need recourse to violence ...
"If the IRA makes the necessary effort in the way in which they frame their ceasefire declaration, to convince all concerned that this time there is no turning back to violence - yes, I believe, Sinn Fein will be quickly admitted to talks."
The two leaders, who spent about two hours discussing Europe, will meet again at the Dublin summit on Friday. There is pessimism in Dublin that Mr Major's loss of a majority at Westminster has left the Government open to pressure from the Ulster Unionists.
Mr Major reiterated, however, that he would want to examine the terms of any new ceasefire, and then scrutinise the IRA and Sinn Fein over an unspecified period of time before allowing the republicans into talks.
Dublin, together with SDLP leader John Hume, accepts the Sinn Fein argument that in republican terms this is not practical politics. Republicans say that the 1994 ceasefire was a move on their part to produce negotiations, and that its failure to do so means that there cannot be another such unilateral move. One leading republican said: "An IRA leadership that did that would be just laughed out of office."
Many observers in Ireland, north and south, believe that Mr Major's position contains an ironic echo of that of Mr Adams. Just as another unilateral ceasefire is not practical politics for Mr Adams, so any bold move by Mr Major to assure Sinn Fein of serious negotiations would bring down disaster on his government.
In such a scenario the Unionists would walk out of negotiations. This would prevent all- party talks; it would also precipitate a campaign to bring down the Major government.
In Belfast, mainstream Unionist politicians are happy with Mr Major's present stance. But nationalists, for all yesterday's decorous agreement to disagree, are becoming more and more anti-Major.
In the south, according to a recent opinion poll, 50 per cent of people blame the prime minister for the stalemate in the peace process, while only 11 per cent blame the republicans. Britain has, in other words, a huge credibility problem across the Irish Sea.
The nationalist instinct is that there are doves in the republican movement who should be encouraged in their debates with their more hawkish associates. There is little sympathy for British ministers who challenge Mr Adams and company.
This is being duly noted by the republicans who, it can be presumed, will now view their options as having been narrowed by the outcome of yesterday's talks. The chances are, having concluded in their compassionless analysis that jaw-jaw is not on offer, then it will have to be war-war.Reuse content