WASHINGTON — DESPITE high-level prodding by the Clinton administration, parties to the conflict in Northern Ireland remain at odds over how to translate a year-long cease-fire into serious peace talks.
The latest nudge was administered this week by Vice President Al Gore and national security adviser Anthony Lake. In a White House meeting with the head of the political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), they urged that peace and disarmament talks be held simultaneously as a way of breaking the impasse between the IRA and Britain.
But as Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams concludes a four-day United States visit, his fourth in the past 18 months, he and his principal antagonist - British Prime Minister John Major - remain deadlocked over whether the IRA should begin disarming before or after peace talks are begun.
The US sees ''merit in the 'twin-track' proposal to begin inclusive talks ... and to establish an international body to address the issue of decommissioning weapons,'' the White House said in a statement issued after Wednesday's meeting.
President Clinton, who has incurred Mr. Major's displeasure by granting a series of visas to Mr. Adams to visit and raise funds in the US, has praised Adams's commitment to an IRA cease-fire proclaimed a year ago.
But he has urged conciliation on the arms issue as a way of getting talks under way between Northern Ireland's political parties and the governments of Britain and Ireland.
Adams says it is unrealistic to talk about disarming the IRA before peace talks are under way. Major, his resolve stiffened by Protestant Unionists from Northern Ireland in Parliament, says if the process of decommissioning is not started before talks begin the IRA could gain a significant tactical advantage.
Says Washington-based Irish Times correspondent Shawn Cronin, ''Both sides have too much invested in the process to allow it to go by the boards over the decommissioning issue.''
Britain has proposed setting up an international commission to discuss how and when the IRA should lay down its arms. White House spokesman Mike McCurry announced Tuesday that the US would consider participating.
Former Senate majority leader George Mitchell (D) of Maine, now a special emissary on Irish economic affairs, is likely to play a lead role if the US is asked to assist.
At a press conference in Washington on Tuesday, Adams accused Britain of using the decommissioning issue to stall peace talks.
''Decommissioning is a code for IRA surrender,'' explains Rita O'Hare, a Sinn Fein spokesman in Belfast. ''It's an effort by Britain to control the agenda of the talks and the pace with which things happen.''
A summit between the British and Irish prime ministers scheduled for Sept. 6 was postponed by Ireland because of Britain's demand that Sinn Fein not be seated at the negotiating table talks until the IRA begins to disarm.
Ireland says a pledge by the IRA not to resort to violence is a sufficient precondition to launching all-party peace talks.
''We need to be confident that a return to violence is neither a threat nor an option,'' responded Britain's secretary for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, writing in the New York Times.
Decades of strife gave way to a fragile peace one year ago when the IRA declared a cease-fire in Northern Ireland. The peace has been punctuated with demonstrations but has restored the region to a semblance of normalcy.
Progress now depends on the willingness of the IRA and British government to compromise. The problem is that neither side has much room to maneuver.
Adams could provoke IRA militants if he agrees even to a partial disarmament.
''The question of surrendering arms before the talks begin is out of the question for the IRA,'' Mr. Cronin says.
As for Major, he is increasingly dependent on the 11 votes of the Ulster Unionist Party to get legislation through Parliament, which may be one reason his government raised the issue of decommissioning in the first place.
Once they actually begin, all-party talks will have to deal with immensely complex issues, including power-sharing arrangements for Northern Ireland, disarmament, and political prisoners.
Clinton has sought to be an honest broker in the fledgling peace process by pressuring Britain to recognize Sinn Fein and the IRA to maintain its cease-fire.
He will travel to Ireland in late November.
The modern phase of the Irish problem began in 1921 when Britain partitioned Ireland, granting independence to the 26 southernmost counties but making the six northern counties a British province called Northern Ireland, or Ulster.
Ulster's two-thirds majority Protestants want to maintain their union with Britain. Ulster's minority Catholics, however, want to be reunited with Catholic Ireland to the south.
British troops entered Northern Ireland in 1969 to restore order after disgruntled Catholics took to the streets to protest discrimination in housing, jobs, and voting rights. They have been there ever since.