The British government believes a return to inter-party talks offers the best hope of progress. Dublin, by contrast, is committed to a full-blown peace process, probably involving unacknowledged elements of the Hume-Adams initiative.
Dublin sources say they expect the Anglo-Irish summit scheduled for December to be a watershed at which the Irish government hopes to persuade John Major to aim for a wider agenda than that of the inter-party talks which over several years have failed to reach agreement.
British government sources insist progress can only be made through a much longer-term investment in coaxing the four main constitutional parties back to the table. It is acknowledged that this is not a quick or easy task.
This painstaking work is clearly a far cry from the ambitious hopes of the Irish Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, who has spoken of the possibility of peace by Christmas and says that the two governments should work as fast as possible to take advantage of a window of opportunity.
The positions of the two governments have been mapped out clearly in the past few days. Mr Reynolds said: 'I passionately believe that unless we can find a formula for peace, the talks process will not succeed.' Stating the counter-argument, Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, declared: 'While the talks retain so much potential, the priority must be to carry them forward, not cut across or duplicate them.'
A Northern Ireland Office spokesman said: 'If there is a division it is a divergence of emphasis. While inter-party talks would not be peace talks in themselves, a successful conclusion would further marginalise the paramilitaries.'
It is now confirmed that Dublin has committed itself to a dramatic change of policy and the pursuit of a process whose priority is not to bring the constitutional parties round the table but to bring about a cessation of IRA violence.
Mr Reynolds has indicated that elements of Hume-Adams could form an important part of this process, although it is universally acknowledged that the 'fingerprints' of the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams will have to be removed.
Mr Major has signalled that he does not believe the Hume-Adams course is the way ahead. The Irish government, too, was previously cool towards the initiative, but a wave of nationalist sentiment in favour of Hume-Adams has brought about a revision of Dublin policy.
The Irish government is not against inter-party talks, but thinks the main effort should now go into exploring the possibilities opened by the dialogue between Mr Adams and the SDLP MP John Hume.
The dialogue has won overwhelming support in nationalist Ireland, though in Unionist eyes it holds many dangers. The prospect that a path to peace may exist has changed the political climate in Ireland, and has led nationalist opinion away from Sir Patrick's idea that progress can be made by small incremental steps.
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