BRITAIN and the Irish Republic now accept the need for long and detailed negotiations between them before a solution to the problem of Northern Ireland can emerge. But serious constitutional sticking points still lie across their path.
After weeks of rising hope that a breakthrough to peace might be within reach, Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, is making proposals that John Major, his British counterpart, regards as obstacles to progress.
The two leaders were due to hold talks in Dublin today amid what one London official described as ``deepening concern'' that a ``window of opportunity'' was in danger of being closed if Mr. Reynolds stuck to his latest proposals.
The Irish leader confirmed on Dec. 1 that he wanted Britain to agree to ``a declaration of the right of Irish people to national self-determination by consent, freely given, north and south of the [Irish] border.''
His formulation, which he described as ``balanced and fair,'' was seen by the Rev. Ian Paisley and other Northern Ireland Protestant politicians as a shift toward a call for a united Ireland and therefore unacceptable.
Dublin officials say acceptance of the principle of self-determination for the people of all Ireland would mean holding an all-Ireland referendum, and obtaining the majority support of Northern Ireland voters. British officials say Northern Ireland's Unionists (Protestants) would oppose an all-Ireland referendum.
Sources close to Reynolds claim that his room for maneuver had been heavily eroded by what is seen in Dublin as Mr. Major's maladroit handling of contacts with the Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist group.
The sources say that at a meeting in Brussels on Oct. 29 Major told Reynolds that he would have nothing to do with peace proposals with ``IRA fingerprints all over them.'' Last weekend, however, it emerged that Britain had been maintaining secret contact with the IRA for the past nine months.
The Dublin sources say that Reynolds was angry at what he saw as ``British dissimulation.'' Major had exposed the Irish leader to charges by his political opponents that he was being duped by London, they add.
Today's meeting between the leaders was to have been a full summit, with detailed peace proposals on the table and an agreed communique issued afterward.
Because of tension between London and Dublin, neither side could agree in advance on the text of a communique, and the encounter was scaled down and described by officials in Dublin as a ``working meeting.'' It will be followed later this month by two further meetings aimed, a Dublin official says, at ``ironing out the bumps created by the furor'' over Britain's IRA contacts.
There are indications that the British government has failed to take enough account of the delicate position Reynolds finds himself in as he strives to fashion a peace formula for Northern Ireland that would be acceptable to his own supporters.
THE Irish Constitution lays claim to Northern Ireland, and Britain has been privately pressing Reynolds to accept amendments that would enable both governments to per- suade the Protestants of the province that there was no danger of their being absorbed into the Republic against their will.
Dick Spring, the Irish foreign minister and deputy prime minister, favors dropping the constitutional claim. But many members of Reynolds's Fianna Fail party, the main coalition partner, are deeply reluctant to abandon it.
``Given time and a calm atmosphere, Reynolds might be able to exercise gentle persuasion and bring the doubters along with him,'' a Fianna Fail parliamentarian says. ``But the rumpus over London's IRA contacts has created great problems for him.''
As the two leaders prepared for their meeting, further evidence of the British government's clumsiness emerged.
Sir Patrick Mayhew, the Northern Ireland secretary, admitted that there had been 20 ``mistakes'' in documents published on Nov. 29 detailing London's contacts with the IRA. He insisted that the ``transcription and typing errors'' did not alter the content of the exchanges.
But Kevin McNamara, the Labour opposition's Northern Ireland spokesman, pointed out that there was confusion over who, last February, had initiated contacts between Britain and the IRA.
Sir Patrick claims that it was the IRA, but the IRA disagrees. The key document is a transcript of a conversation between British officials and the IRA, and Mr. McNamara says he can't be sure that the British version is accurate.
Although the three December meetings between Major and Reynolds are being played down by both governments, they are likely to be crucial in deciding whether or not the peace process can proceed.