Northern Ireland’s abortion laws will tonight move from being the most restrictive in the UK and Ireland to the most liberal after a farcical sitting of the Stormont Assembly was unable to prevent the change.
Westminster legislation passed in July meant that abortion would be fully decriminalised and same-sex marriage legalised in Northern Ireland unless the Stormont Executive was restored by yesterday.
Pro-choice campaigners welcomed the change in the law for which they have campaigned for decades. But churches and pro-life groups said that it was a sad day.
The DUP had come under pressure from some pro-life groups and some of its own members to publicly make clear that it was prepared to accept an Irish language act – the likely price if Sinn Fein is to agree to restore devolution – in order to prevent abortion.
However, the party resisted that pressure and yesterday attempted a more complicated last-minute attempt to negate what Westminster had done.
DUP MLAs tried to introduce a private member’s bill which would have stopped abortion being decriminalised.
However, the Speaker, Robin Newton – himself elected as a DUP MLA – blocked the route for his party colleagues who responded by making vocal their displeasure at his actions.
During a bizarre 48-minute sitting of the Assembly, the first in more than two years, Sinn Fein, Alliance, the Green Party and People Before Profit boycotted proceedings from the outset.
Then the SDLP walked out, claiming that the DUP was responsible for a “stunt”.
By doing so, the SDLP made it impossible for the legislation to move forward because the Northern Ireland Act 1998 states that the Assembly’s first business must be the election of a speaker and that must happen with majority support from both unionism and nationalism.
With no nationalists in the chamber, the DUP leader Arlene Foster then led her MLAs out of the Assembly.
That was ultimately followed by TUV leader Jim Allister then the UUP MLAs walking out, leaving an empty chamber without a quorum.
If the DUP had succeeded in being able to pass legislation without nationalist consent it would have effectively represented the emergence of a legislative Assembly which could have seen unionists legislate in any devolved area if nationalists did not show up.
The speaker said that he had received legal advice from the Assembly’s lawyers and had given “very careful consideration to this matter”.
Mr Newton said that he was “very clear” that the first item of Assembly business had to be the election of a speaker and “the Assembly cannot undertake any further business until this happens”.
DUP MLA Paul Givan responded by saying that he had sought the opinion of Attorney General John Larkin, describing his view as “being superior to any legal counsel that exists in this place and has advised you on the issue”.
He said that Mr Larkin had given him “crystal clear” advice that there was a legal route to debate and pass his bill without first electing as speaker because “the Assembly is master of its own procedure” and could set aside its own standing orders – the rules by which Stormont business operates.
However Mr Newton, who frequently appeared personally unclear about the issue and was taking advice from civil service aides, refused to change his mind, despite his party leader Mrs Foster urging him to do so.
Mrs Foster said: “This is a sitting to deal with some of the most fundamental issues that can affect our society today, and I implore you to take an adjournment to allow us to have that legal advice so that we can have that equality of arms, and I have to say, as well, to say that you have taken the breadth of legal advice and that you are satisfied with that legal advice, whilst not acknowledging the fact that the attorney general has given different legal advice, is not the right route to go down.
“I implore you once again to share the legal advice with all of the Members of this Assembly.”
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, who travelled from Dublin to lead her party’s response to the situation even though her MLAs did not enter the chamber, was sharply critical of the DUP.
She said: “I think the circus and farce today in the Assembly chamber demonstrates very clearly that what we don’t need is political games.
“We need serious politics and the next time that MLAs walk into that chamber it must be to form an Executive to deliver for every citizen that lives here in the north of Ireland.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “We will not be part of supporting the introduction of a shadow Assembly that will effect no change at all but will lead only to the fundamental destruction of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Allister responded by saying that “those determined to thwart the election of a speaker are, in effect, thwarting the possibility of taking action to defend the unborn, whose voice cannot be heard here today but whose voice is the one crying out to us all in this chamber?
“Is it not a tragedy that the SDLP, who proclaim themselves as a pro-life party, will take a step, it seems, to stop a Speaker being elected knowing that that stops legislation to prevent the introduction of section 9 of the appalling Act from July?”
l Morning View, page 18