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Patrick Murphy: It is tempting to conclude that Sinn Féin has no strategy

 Sinn Féin addresses the media at Stormont. Picture by Hugh Russell

Wasn't it a remarkable feat of linguistic ability that five political parties, a secretary of state and an Irish foreign minister could talk to each other for four months and apparently not say anything which any of them found remotely interesting?

What did they do all day? Were they playing snooker or table tennis before they trooped solemnly out to face the media? When they had all criticised each other in public, did they rush back in again and say, "Right, let's put the kettle on", before settling down together to watch horse racing on television?

A rather cynical view, you might say, but if they had been drinking tea and watching television, the outcome might even have been better - maybe they would have compromised on the biscuits. As it was, the only thing on which they agreed was that they should continue to be paid, even though there is no assembly. (Who says the art of political compromise is dead?)

So what happens now? When the last drum has been battered and the last pallet burned, what will those in the room do next? The answer is that no one, least of all those in the room, have any idea.

The two big parties have no Plan B. The three smaller parties have not been allowed to put forward a Plan A and the British and Irish governments' plan is to have no plan at all. With due respect to all of them, they appear to be making it up as they go along.

The DUP is probably in the strongest position - at least for now. Even without Stormont, they will effectively hold power in Westminster through their parliamentary alliance with the Conservatives. So, while they would like to return to Stormont, they can do without it for as long as Theresa May is prime minister.

That may not be very long because, having found money for the DUP, Mrs May must now find money for Tory marginal seats.

She also faces many potential pitfalls in the Brexit negotiations and, to head off Boris Johnson on one side and Jeremy Corbyn on the other, she has three immediate challenges.

She must provide up to six million new houses (about 300,000 a year for the next 20 years) in a society where housing profit takes priority over housing need. She must fund an ailing NHS system and she must tackle job creation in a world where robotics and artificial intelligence are slashing the need for humans. She will fail in all three.

While the DUP's future role in Westminster is far from predictable, it is easy to understand. Sinn Féin's strategy, however, is less clear. Indeed it is tempting to conclude that SF has no strategy, other than to prolong the talks and hope for a lucky break, similar to the one the DUP received in Westminster.

Sinn Féin collapsed Stormont because of the RHI scandal. But this issue rarely appears on their current wish list. Instead they have a list of demands ranging from the vague but reasonable (Irish language recognition), through the distracting (equality, but not for the poor) to the downright silly (demanding respect).

Respect has to be earned. In view of the years they spent chuckling with Paisley, Robinson and Foster, some might suggest that if they did not respect themselves, they cannot reasonably expect others to respect them.

SF's claim that nationalists were failed by Stormont is untrue. Stormont failed everyone, but because SF relies on nationalist votes, it re-wrote the assembly's performance as having failed only nationalists and then expanded that claim into the current list of demands.

They have raised nationalist expectations, but it is difficult to see them getting all they seek. So are they deliberately making demands which they know will not be met, or will they re-write their shopping list in the autumn and settle for less? Re-writing has served them well in the past.

So the bad news about the talks breaking up this week is that our politicians missed watching the Irish Open on television in the comfort of Stormont Castle. But the talks prospects for the rest of July are good. Their agenda items will presumably include watching the Tour de France and possibly the Ulster Football Final.

More cynicism, you say. You would be right were it not for the fact that the talks have cost us £4 million in political salaries and expenses in the past four months. Meanwhile £3 million may be withheld from poorer families to buy school uniforms.

Now, that's cynicism - and we are paying for it.

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