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New MLAs sign on , but they've nothing to do as talks leave Stormont in limbo

By Suzanne Breen

Newly elected MLAs will gather today for the first meeting of the Assembly - but the current political stalemate means there is no business on the agenda.

The 90 representatives will register at 4pm by signing the roll of membership, but then will disperse as the lack of agreement between the parties prevents even the election of a Speaker.

TUV leader Jim Allister branded the situation "a fiasco" and symbolic of Stormont's failings.

He claimed that by not electing a Speaker immediately after MLAs registered, the Assembly was "bending its own rules".

Talks to save power-sharing will continue between the parties today. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood called on everyone to redouble their efforts, but Ulster Unionist chief negotiator Tom Elliott said he saw little sign that a deal could be reached within the next three weeks.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has cancelled his St Patrick's Day trip to Washington to meet US President Donald Trump in order to concentrate on the talks. It is understood that all the party leaders, except Gerry Adams, have also opted to stay in Northern Ireland this week.

Mr Eastwood said: "We are focused on reaching a deal and establishing a government fit for the challenges facing us.

"Our crumbling health service and Brexit require urgent attention. Everyone at the talks' table needs determination and positivity to get the job done."

The SDLP leader said it was depressing that the political stalemate meant that the Assembly would be adjourned after Members registered.

"It's a sign of the times. We have three weeks to get things up and running and let's hope that's all it takes," he added.

Mr Elliott said that he wasn't optimistic about the chances of a deal. "We have a long way to go in a very short space of time. I see little agreement on the areas of concern, and few signs that things are about to change," he added.

Mr Allister claimed that by not electing a Speaker today, Stormont was once again failing.

"Standing order four states that once the registration of MLAs is over, the Assembly shall proceed to elect a Speaker," he said.

"That won't happen because the issue of the new Speaker is enmeshed in the negotiations between Sinn Fein and the DUP. Such is the chaos at Stormont that the Assembly can't even follow its own rules."

The Speaker in the last Assembly, the DUP's Robin Newton, who ended his term in controversy, is expected to remain in post until the end of the month.

Turning to the talks, Mr Allister claimed that the DUP was "showing every sign that it is willing to fill Sinn Fein's boots with endless concessions".

He said: "Gerry Adams is setting the bar as high as he can with his demand list. I can't see the Executive returning unless the DUP grants Sinn Fein maximum concessions and that would be utter folly. On Brexit alone, Mr Adams is making undeliverable demands.

"He is asking for things that can't be done if Brexit is to mean Brexit."

Mr Adams yesterday repeated his call for Northern Ireland to be granted special designated status within the EU. "This is the only logical way to avoid a hard economic border, job losses and business closures," he said.

"If the British Government succeeds, it will drive this part of Ireland out of the EU. This is not acceptable."

The Sinn Fein president urged the British Government to implement "key elements of the Good Friday and other Agreements" and to take action regarding an Irish Language Act, a Bill of Rights and equal marriage.

Mr Adams was speaking as the latest opinion poll showed significant growth in support for his party. The Sunday Times Behaviour and Attitudes poll has Sinn Fein on 23% as the second most popular party in the Republic.

It has risen 4% in the polls and is now ahead of Fine Gael (22%) and Labour (6%) with Fianna Fail on 28%.

Meanwhile, Arlene Foster has revealed that she never considered resigning as DUP leader despite the poor election results for her party. "I said back in December the mark of a politician is not what they do during good times but how they tackle the challenges," she told Sky News.

Asked if she would meet Sinn Fein's demand that she step aside as First Minister until the 'cash for ash' inquiry was complete, she said it was up to the DUP alone to decide who its nominee would be.

"So they (Sinn Fein) can't tell us who to select as our nominees and likewise we can't tell them," she added.

Mrs Foster said that the election had been a "wake-up call for unionism", but denied that it had been "disastrous" for her party.

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