Unionists are to gather at the mothballed Stormont Assembly chamber in a symbolic attempt to revive the collapsed Six County institutions. They intend to discuss the implementation of Direct Rule legislation for abortion, due to become law on Monday.
Although Stormont has lain dormant for almost three years and has been overtaken by Direct Rule powers, the move is technically in accordance with the chamber’s Standing Orders. More than 30 former Assembly members signed a ‘recall petition’ to Robin Newton of the DUP, who has remained in post as the Speaker of the body.
Stormont collapsed in early 2017 after the DUP and Sinn Féin-led executive fell apart in the wake of a corruption scandal and the DUP’s repeated use of veto powers to prevent political change.
The meeting on Monday is being organised by the DUP as part of their campaign to block Westminster legislation on abortion. The British legislation is due to become law in the North of Ireland on Monday unless powersharing is somehow restored on that date.
It is not clear if those present can even properly hold a debate, because under the Standing Orders they first need to elect a new Speaker, which requires cross-community support. However, some former nationalist Assembly members in the SDLP have shown an interest in attending and could facilitate the effort.
Former SDLP Assembly member Daniel McCrossan told the BBC he will be attending the chamber and said he understood other former SDLP Assembly members could also be present.
The SDLP is an anti-abortion party, but its members are free to vote with their conscience on abortion laws. SDLP leader Colum Eastwood rejected the DUP move, branding it “cynical” and “designed to get them off the hook for three years of irresponsible behaviour”.
Pro-life republican party Aontú has backed calls for action to prevent the Westminster legislation being introduced. Aontú party leader Peadar Tóibín, who left Sinn Féin amid a row over its abortion stance, said the north is “standing on the precipice of a section of humanity being deemed not adequately human and therefore not deserving of the most basic human right, the right to life.”
He said 42,000 people had signed a petition against the legislation.
“We are calling for Sinn Féin at this late hour to do the right thing and act to stop the imposition of British abortion laws in Ireland. If they don’t they will be directly responsible for the regime that follows.”
Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill dismissed the DUP move as a “pointless political stunt”. The party said it would not not attend the assembly meeting.
If a speaker is chosen, the next move would theoretically be to attempt to elect a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister, which, according to party strengths, must come from the DUP and Sinn Féin respectively.
Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard said he believed that no member of his party would be present on Monday, indicating that the process is bound to fail. Mr Hazzard told the BBC: “Arlene Foster thinks that she is going to walk into Stormont, all of the parties are going to follow her behind, and we’re all going to somehow dance to her tune. Sinn Féin certainly won’t be playing that game.”