'A shameful day for the unborn' says Arlene Foster - SDLP MLAs walkout of chamber in protest over speaker

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The first sitting of the Stormont Assembly in two-and-a-half years has ended in acrimony after a last-minute bid to thwart the decriminalisation of abortion was blocked.

Despite the ongoing absence of a power-sharing executive, the Assembly sat after it was recalled by MLAs wishing to protest at changes to Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

DUP leader, Arlene Foster. (Photo: P.A. Wire)

DUP leader, Arlene Foster. (Photo: P.A. Wire)

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

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

But outgoing speaker Robin Newton prevented the matter being considered.

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

However, Mr 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 in the chamber - such support was not forthcoming as nationalist members indicated they would not back any appointment in the absence of a power-sharing executive.

Mr Newton 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 Northern Ireland 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.

The plenary sitting was dominated by unionist members representing the DUP, UUP and TUV.

SDLP members also attended, but leader Colum Eastwood said his party would not support a speaker if an executive was not formed. Their MLAs then walked out of the chamber.

Sinn Fein did not turn up to a sitting it had branded a circus.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was a "shameful day".

"This is not a day of celebration for the unborn," she said.

Ms Foster said decriminalisation at midnight would not mark the end of efforts to prevent the introduction of abortion services in the region.

She said her party would explore "every possible legal option" open to it.

Ms Foster said the law change would see Northern Ireland adopt the most liberal abortion regime anywhere in Europe.

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

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 have been stopped if the crisis-hit devolved executive was revived prior to the midnight deadline - a turn of events that was always 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.