The Assembly will re-form amid bitter tensions today, in a bid to stop NI switching from one of the world’s most conservative abortion regimes to one of the most radical.
Thirty MLAs, from the DUP, UUP and TUV, signed a petition which will allow them to sit in the Assembly in a bid to nominate an Executive and thus head off the legal changes imposed on NI in a highly controversial vote by MPs in the summer.
Westminster agreed that if the Assembly was not recalled by today, abortion here would be decriminalised and same-sex marriage would be legalised across NI.
Pro-life campaigners led by Baroness Nuala O’Loan and campaign alliance Both Lives Matter have lamented the fact that such radical change – confirmed by government as significantly more liberal than GB – has been pushed through so quickly without any public consultation.
However, the one-off Assembly has been rejected by pro-choice campaigners and Sinn Fein, and will also be boycotted by Alliance, party leader Naomi Long branding it a “cynical political stunt”.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International will lead a celebration rally in Belfast today to celebrate the arrival of same-sex marriage.
Peadar Tóibiín TD, leader of pro-life nationalist party Aontú, said almost 65,000 people had signed a petition calling on Sinn Fein to restore the Executive today.
Sinn Fein said it supports the right to “equal marriage, the decriminalisation of women and ... health services for women across the island”. However, it branded the Assembly recall “a pointless stunt”.
The Assembly should legislate on these issues, it said, but the DUP has failed to engage in “meaningful talks”, showed “disrespect for whole sections of the community” and engaged in financial scandals instead.
Mrs Long MEP said her MLAs decided to not attend today’s sitting. “It is a cynical political stunt, which has no prospect of leading to the formation of an Executive, but it will increase acrimony between parties and bring the chamber further into disrepute, making an actual restoration more difficult,” she said.
However, DUP Assembly chief whip Gordon Lyons responded that Alliance MLAs recently joined others outside Stormont to protest against the continued absence of devolution. “Eight days later the same Alliance MLAs will refuse to walk into the Assembly chamber and debate legislation impacting upon unborn children that has been imposed on Northern Ireland without consultation,” he said.
His party colleague, Lord Morrow, added that from tomorrow “an unborn dog being bred in Northern Ireland for scientific research will have more rights in law than an unborn human being”.
Almost 29,000 people have signed a petition calling on the government to halt the changes, said Baroness O’Loan.
“It took 17 minutes on July 18 for the House of Commons to receive and agree the proposed change to Northern Ireland’s abortion law,” she said. “Just 17 minutes. Those who passed the law did not represent us and they did not take time to work out the consequences of what they were doing.”
Meanwhile, Aontú leader Mr Tóibiín warned that abortion targets ethnic minorities, baby girls, the poor and those with disabilities. “Sinn Fein’s role in seeking British abortion laws for the north of Ireland has been jaw-dropping for all who have the pursuit of Irish self-determination at heart,” he added.
Peter Lynas, NI director of Evangelical Alliance, said it would be great if the political parties could resolve all outstanding issues today, “but that isn’t necessary – ministers could simply resign the same day”. If not, he said, the unregulated period of the next five months will see no criminal sanctions against backstreet abortions or slipping abortion drugs into drinks and no protection against doctors being forced to participate in abortions.
Liam Gibson of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children added: “From being amongst the safest places in the world for unborn children, Northern Ireland will now have the most extreme abortion regime in Europe. Abortion is not health care, it is an act of lethal violence directed at an innocent child.”
However, Amnesty International’s Patrick Corrigan said a celebration takes place in Belfast today to welcome same-sex marriage. “This is an incredible moment for so many people, especially for same-sex couples who will now be treated as equal citizens in their own country and women who will no longer face the prospect of prosecution for seeking health care,” he said.