The dispute centres on signals from Sinn Fein that its peace terms have been reduced from the days when only British withdrawal would satisfy the IRA. These terms are frustratingly vague. However, the Republic's government has recently warmed to the view of John Hume, leader of the SDLP, that there are grounds for hope in his talks with Gerry Adams, Sinn Fein's leader.
In contrast, John Major's government is deeply sceptical about the talks representing anything more than an IRA ploy. He sees only political problems with the Unionists resulting from the dialogue. Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary, has instead put his faith in inter-party talks as the best long- term foundation for peace.
There are serious differences between the governments. Britain is angry with the Republic for reversing its earlier frosty reception of the Hume-Adams initiative. Meanwhile, the Republic believes Britain is wasting time with sterile inter-party talks and throwing away a rare, if small, chance that the IRA might lay down its arms.
Both sides must see the other's point of view. Britain is deeply sensitive to the fears of the Unionists, who are wary of even the hint of a sell-out. The Republic's government need concern itself only fleetingly with Northern Ireland's majority community, whereas that community's problems must be central to the British government. Anything acceptable to Sinn Fein is bound to run counter to Unionist aspirations. Mr Hume speaks of peace within a week. Albert Reynolds, the Irish premier, suggests it could be achieved by Christmas. Such prospects are seductive. But if the price of a deal is Unionist alienation, it would be too high. Any such peace would be short-lived.
There are also some awkward facts relating to domestic politics. John Major, with his slight majority, is in no position to dispense with Unionist support. Nor is the Republic's government above similar domestic considerations. Its sudden conversion last week to the Hume-Adams initiative reflected concern among southern nationalists that they were selling their northern brethern short. Mr Reynolds, with a keen eye on his own political prospects, beat the nationalist drum in a hasty retreat from his previous more accommodating stance towards the Unionists.
The message must be that both governments should take stock of these dilemmas and seek accommodation within political reality. Finger-pointing can only damage the Anglo-Irish relationship that will lie at the heart of a peace settlement.Reuse content