A bizarre publicity event organised by the hardline unionist DUP at the defunct Stormont Assembly ended when an attempt to revive its lawmaking powers failed.
The DUP, other conservative unionists and a number of nationalist SDLP members were seeking to prevent Britain’s abortion regime becoming law in the Six Counties. It failed when a Speaker of the body could not legally be elected amid a walk-out by those SDLP members present.
Under legislation passed at Westminster earlier this year, abortion will become widely available across the Six Counties.
As the DUP made an attempt to introduce a ‘Defence of the Unborn Child’ bill, the existing Speaker Robin Newton said no business could be done until after the election of a new Speaker. Such an election would require cross-community support -- involving nationalists as well as unionists.
Members of the SDLP who were present refused to take part in the procedure. Party leader Colum Eastwood described the assembly meeting as a stunt and said the issue of abortion legislation “could have been dealt with at any point over the last 1,000 days”, before leading his colleagues in a melodramatic walkout.
“We will not participate in this stunt any longer and we will not be providing cross-community support for the election of a speaker, thank you,” he declared.
The DUP’s Paul Givan had argued there could be a suspension of standing orders to enable the bill to be considered, before it was pointed out that this also requires cross-community support.
Sinn Féin and Alliance, who support the legalisation of abortion to the Six Counties, were not present.
The issue is as divisive in the North as it is in the 26 Counties, where abortion has recently become available in the first three months of pregnancy.
Campaigners from both sides who gathered at the front of Stormont today demanded a huge range of policies, from a blanket ban in all circumstances to its legalisation in all circumstances.
The legislation which becomes law in the North tomorrow is set to immediately decriminalise abortion ahead of the introduction of Britain’s relatively liberal regime, under which abortion is legal up to the sixth month of pregnancy. However, during an ‘interim’ period until the end of next March, a 10-week public consultation will take place on how services will be delivered.
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 the decriminalisation at midnight would not mark the end of efforts to prevent the introduction of abortion services in the region. She then led an elaborate walkout of her own party members from the chamber, stating:
“This is not the end of this matter as far as this party is concerned, we will take every possible legal action open to us to try and stop, if it comes into force tonight, there are other options in terms of repealing and we will make sure that we will do everything we can in our conscience to protect the life of the unborn.”
Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill said the Stormont stunt was “pointless and achieved nothing other than to bring the political institutions into further disrepute”.
In a statement, she said: “If the DUP applied the same creativity and imagination into getting the institutions up and running as they have in denying rights we would have a functioning Assembly.”
She said he party believes the issues of abortion and same-sex marriage, which also becomes legal from tomorrow, should have been dealt with by a functioning Assembly and Executive.
“That has not been possible as the DUP have not engaged in meaningful negotiation since it walked away from a deal and talks in February 2018,” she said.
“The DUP’s denial of citizens’ rights, the negative impact of its toxic pact with the Tories and the British government’s abandonment of the impartiality required under the Good Friday Agreement have prevented the restoration of the institutions.
“Sinn Féin wants those institutions to be up and running on the basis of genuine power-sharing, of equality, rights and integrity and legislating for all.”