MLAs launch last-minute bid to stop decriminalisation of abortion in NI

Anti-abortion Assembly members have launched a last-minute bid to thwart the decriminalisation of terminations in the region.

The Assembly sat for the first time in two-and-a-half years later after it was recalled by MLAs wishing to protest at changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

In an unorthodox step, the plenary session was convened in the ongoing absence of a powersharing executive.

Abortion will be decriminalised in Northern Ireland at midnight on Monday.

At the start of proceedings in Parliament Buildings, there was a bid by anti-abortion MLAs to fast-track a piece of private members’ legislation through in a single day to thwart the abortion reform.

Ulster powersharing
Arlene Foster with DUP MLAs in Stormont Parliament buildings (Niall Carson/PA)

DUP MLA Paul Givan urged the suspension of standing orders to enable the bill to be considered.

However, outgoing speaker Robin Newton said a new speaker would need to be in place before the Assembly could turn to such a legislative bid.

The election of a speaker requires cross-community backing in the chamber – such support appeared unlikely on Monday as nationalist members indicated they would not back the appointment of a new speaker.

Mr Newton said a further sitting of the Assembly would be required to consider the bill and highlighted that the suspension of standing orders also required cross-community backing.

He said it was “not good practice” to take a piece of legislation through in one day.

“The Assembly cannot do any business until a speaker and deputy speakers are elected,” he said.

Mr Givan insisted that advice from Attorney General John Larkin indicated that standing orders could be suspended to allow the legislation to be considered.

Mr Newton maintained his stance, highlighting that he had received his own legal advice on the issue.

Ulster powersharing
Pro-choice activists take part in a photocall in the grounds of Stormont Parliament (Niall Carson/PA)

Anti-abortion and pro-choice campaigners gathered at the front of Stormont on Monday morning to voice their contrasting views on the emotive issue.

If the legislation is not considered on Monday, the sitting is set to be largely symbolic, as the Assembly cannot perform its functions without a ministerial executive in place.

While rival MLAs had branded proceedings a meaningless stunt, the members who signed the recall petition insisted it would provide a forum to voice opposition to the imminent decriminalisation of abortion.

While unionist members attended the sitting, Sinn Fein said it would not turn up to a sitting it has described as a circus.

SDLP members did attend, but leader Colum Eastwood said his party would not support a speaker if an executive was not formed.

The abortion law will change in Northern Ireland at midnight on Monday when the Executive Formation Act 2019 comes into effect.

MPs at Westminster successfully amended the Government bill in the summer to include measures to end the near blanket prohibition on abortion and introduce same sex marriage.

Once the 19th-century laws that criminalise abortion lapse at midnight, the Government will assume responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to terminations in the region by next April.

In the interim period, women will be offered free transport to access abortion services in England.

Under the Act, same-sex marriage will become legal in Northern Ireland in January, with the first wedding expected the following month.

The law changes regarding abortion and marriage could only be stopped if the crisis-hit devolved executive is revived prior to the midnight deadline – a turn of events that is extremely unlikely.

With the rift between erstwhile coalition partners the DUP and Sinn Fein over issues such as Irish language legislation as wide as ever, a deal to restore powersharing still looks a long way off.

Pro-choice activists held aloft cardboard letters spelling out “decriminalised” in front of Parliament Buildings ahead of the sitting.

Sarah Ewart, who has become a vocal advocate for reform since having to travel to England for an abortion after receiving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality, welcomed the law change.

“This law change will not fix what I had to go through but it will make it hopefully better for those who follow after me,” she said.

Grainne Teggart from Amnesty International said the law change would pave the way for a more “compassionate” system.

“From midnight tonight history will be made, these oppressive laws that have policed our bodies and our healthcare will be brought to an end,” she said.

“Finally our rights and our healthcare are being brought into the 21st century.”

Anti-abortion activists held up placards stating that the decriminalisation was not in their name.

They also prayed beneath the landmark statue of Sir Edward Carson.

Activist Clive Johnston, from Strabane, warned of the consequences of decriminalisation.

“In today’s world the most dangerous place to be is actually in the womb of a woman,” he said.

“The Government is culpable in actually taking part in what amounts to the killing of babies in the womb.”

The last time the Assembly sat was March 13 2017 in the wake of a snap election caused by the implosion of the devolved institutions two months earlier amid a row over a botched green energy scheme.

The sitting was only for the 90 freshly-elected MLAs to sign the roll of membership and the Assembly has not reconvened since.

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