The parties are required to reach agreement by Good Friday, April 10. If they manage that, referendums will be held on May 22, north and south, to endorse the agreed deal: that is the plan. The talks process might yet end in success; but if it does, it will do so against the prevailing tides, against a background of what can only be described as communal distaste.
Even the Community Relations Council, normally the most determinedly upbeat of quangos, speaks gloomily of "a depressingly inexorable decline in respect for difference." If the process works, in other words, it will happen not from love but on the basis of cold-eyed self-interest.
The desire for peace among almost everyone in Northern Ireland is obvious, but so too are the vast reservoirs, fully-stocked and constantly replenished, of mistrust and indeed fear. This means that there are powerful factors working for peace but also powerful and unmistakable reasons to be pessimistic. Few today would put the chances of success in the talks at higher than 50-50.
Most of the obstacles to peace are well-known but there is one particular issue, not much discussed outside Ireland, which has the capacity to de- rail the whole enterprise. That is the nationalist attitude towards the new Belfast assembly which, it seems, would be an integral part of any new arrangement. The standard description of Unionism, with which Unionists are by now mightily fed up, is that it is intrinsically and incurably insecure. That description is in fact as accurate as ever but there has suddenly been a marked increase of jitters on the nationalist side. There is, for the moment at least, almost parity of insecurity.
Northern nationalists have in recent years become used to winning. Politically, John Hume and Gerry Adams have set the agenda, winning friends and influencing people worldwide and siring the notion of an inclusive peace process. The Irish government, and Washington, are now accepted players in the Northern Ireland game.
A northern nationalist, Mary McAleese, has become president of the Republic. Northern Ireland's 18 MPs now include five nationalists, among them Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. The Lord Mayor of Belfast is one of John Hume's men. Changing demographics mean that perhaps 45 per cent of the population is Catholic. The change also extends to social mobility, the growing Catholic middle-class achieving access to many important levers of public sector power. Catholics make up 55 per cent of undergraduates at Queen's University, Belfast: the future looks greener and greener.
The new nationalist nervousness is based on self-interest: the fear that some of this may be placed at risk. The apprehension centres on the highly problematic idea of an assembly. Almost all their advances can be traced back to 1972 when Stormont, the Unionist-dominated assembly which ran Northern Ireland for half a century, was abolished by Edward Heath.
The subsequent years of direct rule from Westminster have brought steady benefits for the nationalist population. While Stormont existed the world was simply not interested: at Westminster rebel MPs like Kevin McNamara used to be told that Northern Ireland affairs could not be raised in the Commons, since these were matters purely for the people of Northern Ireland. It was the shattering of the theory that Northern Ireland was simply an internal domestic UK matter which made possible the subsequent nationalist political, social, and economic advances, as the problem became internationalised.
The nationalist dilemma is that the present three-stranded approach, which was in fact conceived years ago by John Hume, calls for a new assembly. The three strands are about connecting Belfast, London and Dublin in new arrangements. Nationalists instinctively approve of closer London-Dublin links, implying as they do a permanent role for Dublin in Northern Ireland affairs. They also axiomatically approve of proposals for new north-south institutions, seeing these as tangible expressions of their Irishness. But an assembly is a different matter, reawakening as it has the deep- seated fears of a return to what used to be termed the nationalist nightmare.
It is clear that both governments envisage an assembly that would be absolutely festooned with safeguards and mechanisms, such as weighted majorities and requirements for consensual decision-making. These would be specifically designed to ensure that any new system would function through cooperation and the sharing of power, and emphatically not on the basis of a return to Protestant majority rule.
Yet, whatever the safeguards, any new assembly would have a Unionist majority and hence a Unionist chief executive, and the largest party would be the Ulster Unionists. More than one gathering of Catholics has recently been stunned into appalled silence with the leading question, "Well, how do you fancy David Trimble as your new prime minister?"
Part of the new anxiety is a desire not to have their advances clawed back. A great part is in fact a nationalist judgment on political Unionism; and that judgment, which is pretty much unanimous, is that nationalists do not trust Unionist leaders one inch.
It is very much a given that Catholics do not believe for an instant that the Rev Ian Paisley is now, or would ever be, in the business of giving them a fair crack of the whip. His politics, like his religion, is unabashedly anti-Catholic, his speeches larded with attacks on Popes and priests: there is no give there. He is against the negotiations on principle, and is busy organising anti-talks rallies around Northern Ireland. To date these have not been a great success, but it can never be forgotten that he can command one-third or more of the Unionist vote, and that he is superb at electioneering.
The Ulster Unionists are a different matter. David Trimble, since taking over as leader in September 1995, has been an innovator on many fronts. He has refused all requests - most recently from President Clinton just last week - to meet Gerry Adams face to face, but he has led his party into the talks, regularly met the Irish government, and become a familiar face in Washington.
In doing so he has travelled into territory where no previous Unionist leader ever ventured, thus helping ensure that the Unionist case has not gone by default. But for all his breaking of new ground he has conspicuously not won the hearts and minds, or even the trust, of nationalists. This is mainly because of his identification with Drumcree, the annually catastrophic Orange march in his Upper Bann constituency, which many Orangemen see as an indispensable assertion that the nationalist advances of recent years have their limits. Nationalists take Drumcree as an annual display of sectarian triumphalism, and as a recurring lesson that the Unionism of David Trimble is not offering fair play to them.
A striking feature of the Trimble leadership has been the virtual disappearance of the party's small element of those who seemed enthusiastic about sharing power with nationalists. Jeffrey Donaldson, a new young MP once suspected of moderation, recently ripped up a joint governmental document on television, thus instantly re-positioning himself as a hardliner. In another incident last week Ken Maginnis, generally regarded as the Unionist MP most relaxed about showing respect for the nationalist tradition, removed two Irish tricolours from a St Patrick's Day display in a Commons cafeteria and threw them in the Thames.
But a huge irony in all of this is that while nationalists are alarmed at the prospect of a new era of Protestant power, the Unionist party itself is pressing not for a strong new assembly but an institution with powers so modest that it could be described as minimalist.
The Unionist party's preferred assembly would have no legislative powers: it would not even have a cabinet or executive at its head. Instead, the whole 90-member assembly would decide things in the manner of a local council, all of its members voting on everything. While this would give a Unionist majority a possibly decisive say, it would not give them many positive powers to wield.
There is a widely-held belief that the generality of Protestants is not as uniformly hardline as the Unionist political classes. There is a fair bit of anecdotal evidence to support this theory, but it would be a gigantic risk for any government to attempt to appeal to the Protestant community over the heads of its political representatives; and this government has decided not to. If there is no agreement, there will be no referendums.
The Protestant grassroots mind is difficult to read. Unionists vote for five separate Unionist parties. There is apathy on a surprising scale, large numbers no longer bothering to vote, figuring probably that there is little they can do to stem the steady march of Anglo-Irishry. "Unionists can be so maudlin, so defeatist," a Belfast academic said sadly last week. "They have such a lack of self-confidence."
There is uncertainty and fear, as always; there is also a deep desire for peace, though this is accompanied by the stipulation that it should not be peace at any political price. Despite Drumcree, there is no universal Unionist urge to return to some form of the old domination: most don't want it, others think it is just not on. But there is little belief in the proposition that a whole new dispensation can be constructed which make the union with Britain more secure than it is now.
There is, therefore, no single clear message being transmitted from the grassroots to the leaders of Unionism; and within that leadership itself there is no clear opinion about whether a new deal is either desirable or attainable. Some analysts believe the most telling factor in the way of agreement is that, whatever David Trimble's personal inclinations, he cannot rely on his party to follow him into a new dispensation.
This, together with the difficulties for nationalism, means that this final session of talks is attended with more hope than firm confidence that a historic new compact is in prospect.