The five main Stormont parties were back around the table today, discussing the details of a deal that could get them all back to full-time work.

It is three years since a row between Sinn Féin and the DUP brought down their power-sharing partnership. In the hiatus since, the 90 Assembly members have taken two significant pay cuts.

One reason why the last administration collapsed was the often tetchy Sinn Féin-DUP relationship which was not as robust or cohesive as the three parties who opted out of government and formed an opposition – the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and Alliance.

The structure being explored at the moment would see all five parties participating in government again – in keeping with the Grand Coalition model envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.

A concern shared by many of those working up a possible agreement is would they be equipped with the tools and the skills to do the job? Northern Ireland has a long tradition of functioning and being treated as "the branch office", "the outpost" or "the place apart". 

Traditionally, the UK Treasury controls the purse strings and writes the cheques – significant subsidies included.

In the "more off again than on again" model of power-sharing since the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland's politicians did not amass sufficient flying hours, coping with the challenges and opportunities of ministers in a functioning, devolved administration.

Nor has Northern Ireland’s civil service been encouraged to develop and practice a culture of "the buck stops here". That’s a mild version of the reality.

It is difficult to exaggerate the scale of the problems incubated in expensive areas including health and education services during the three Stormont-in-mothballs years.

During the period, the local civil service was in day-to-day control but not allowed to make major policy decisions. 

Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP said this afternoon "transformation of the health service, reform of our education system, infrastructure investment – there are areas where we need a financial package from the Treasury. And of course preparing for Brexit. There needs to be a financial package, that is absolutely clear and we have talked to the government about it."

Jeffrey Donaldson 

Most of the ask will be directed at the British government and the onus will be on the Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith, to put the squeeze on Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Chancellor Sajid Javid.

But Tánaiste Simon Coveney will also be expected to deliver some funding.

It is more than a decade since a flush administration from south of the border made a commitment to help finance the Dublin to Derry motorway, via Monaghan. 

There was an embarrassing watering down of that promise during the "empty coffers, post Celtic Tiger years".

But the motorway has still to be built and the call for a significant contribution from Leo Varadkar’s administration has been renewed. Simon Coveney will be expected to extract the readies from the Taoiseach and Finance Minister, Pascal Donohue. 

Sinn Féin’s Conor Murphy talked about the general need for support this afternoon.

He said in Stormont’s Great Hall: "We put an Executive back in place together, we can agree and get over the issues that have divided us, but if we don’t have sufficient public finances to provide for proper public services, then there is little point in being in this place."

Conor Murphy

Regardless of whatever funding is extracted from London and Dublin, any incoming Stormont executive would probably say "its not enough. We need more". 

The truth is the full wishlist from Northern Ireland’s politicians would probably embarrass Santa.

The trick for Julian Smith and Simon Coveney will be to put on the table sufficient amounts to play a positive role in the negotiations.

Might the five parties and the Tánaiste/Northern Ireland Secretary co-chairs pull off a surprise and get a deal in place by the weekend, well in advance of the 13 January deadline? It is unlikely. 

True the two main protagonists have been preparing their support basis – Sinn Féin is significantly ahead of the DUP in doing so. But old habits die hard and the close-to-the-wire tradition has been cultivated and practiced over the years.

The sign that something big is about to happen will be when the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach start to co-ordinate their diaries.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with the British PM Boris Johnson

It is difficult to see Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar leave the magic moment to Julian Smith and Simon Coveney. 

Wouldn’t they like to be centrally involved when Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill walk down the marble steps, as Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were when the since deceased Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness did so in May 2007?

Let’s get ahead of ourselves for one minute.

If the deal is done, under the chairmanship of Julian Smith and Simon Coveney, might Boris Johnson decide that his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is now surplus to requirements and cull him in the expected cabinet reshuffle? 

Such things sometimes happen.

Remember how Tony Blair became exercised about the profile of his Northern Ireland secretary, the late Mo Mowam, and nudged her from centre stage? 

It reflected badly on him. But he did it.

In the event of an agreement, will Boris acknowledge or bury his man in the troubled branch office?