The backdrop to the Haass talks is almost relentlessly negative for those working to achieve an agreement.
Almost a year of fierce conflict between unionism and nationalism — and crucially between the DUP and Sinn Fein — about flags, parades and the story of the Troubles has not created an atmosphere for the compromise central to any agreement.
Yet last night, after another week of talks with the parties and others, the diplomat at the centre of the process continued to sound suitably positive about his endeavour.
And last night the possibility of going directly to the people of Northern Ireland emerged as a possible route towards a deal.
Richard Haass insisted that the “tone has been good” among the parties, despite those parties having been at each other’s throats in public over recent weeks during rows about the Maze, the Shankill Bomb and Gerry Kelly’s book recounting his escape from prison.
Yesterday Mr Kelly , one of Sinn Fein’s negotiators, emerged from the Europa Hotel to say that the talks were “a people’s process”.
Asked about that yesterday and whether he would be looking for a form of validation from the people for any deal agreed, Dr Haass was, as he has been since first arriving in Northern Ireland for this process, circumspect.
But, although not using the word referendum in his answer, he made clear that “the question has come up”. Dr Haass suggested that a deal could be signed off by the Assembly, because MLAs are elected by the people to reach agreements.
But he also hinted at “involving ‘the people’” and said that could involve politicians informally consulting their voters or “something more structured and more formal” — a very clear nod towards the possibility of a referendum.
For Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, a successful referendum would provide political cover for any deal, though some unionists fear that an electorate desperate to draw a line under the Troubles would vote in support of almost any deal put to them in a plebiscite.
Yet, as has been shown by a series of referendums which have gone against successive Dublin governments, the people can be stubbornly difficult to convince — even if their politicians have signed up to what is on offer.