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Abortion: NI politicians’ bid to halt law changes fails

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Stormont

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The Democratic Unionist Party walked out of the chamber after attempts to derail the impending law changes failed

A last ditch attempt at the Stormont assembly to stop abortion law changes in Northern Ireland has failed, with the law set to change at midnight.

Unionist parties, who oppose the upcoming liberalisation, triggered the assembly’s recall with a petition.

But politicians were told the assembly could not do any business until a speaker was elected with cross-community backing.

That became impossible when the nationalist SDLP left the chamber.

As a result no nationalist representatives remained, meaning no new speaker could be elected and the sitting was suspended after less than an hour.

Some unionist assembly members had been attempting to introduce the Defence of the Unborn Child Bill 2019, which they hoped to pass by midnight.

But the incumbent speaker, Robin Newton – who was elected as a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MLA – resisted attempts led by his party leader Arlene Foster to persuade him to suspend assembly rules to allow the bill to be introduced.

In July, MPs at Westminster passed legislation which requires the government to liberalise abortion and extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland if devolution is not restored by 21 October.

Monday’s sitting was the first time the assembly had sat for nearly three years.

The DUP also walked out, saying this was not the end of the matter.

Mrs Foster said it was a “shameful day” which would leave Northern Ireland with Europe’s most liberal abortion laws.

Analysis: Stormont’s divisions exposed

By Gareth Gordon, BBC News NI Political Correspondent

It was a high stakes move ultimately doomed to failure.

But the last ditch attempt by the DUP and others to stave off changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws exposed the divisions which have prevented Stormont from operating for almost three years.

With lightning haste they attempted to introduce something called the Defence of the Unborn Child Bill 2019 which they hoped to force through by midnight.

But the speaker stubbornly resisted attempts to persuade him to suspend standing orders to allow it to happen.

It all means that the law governing this most emotive of areas will, as we expected, change at midnight.

But what the events of the day have done for the already battered image of the assembly – and attempts to restore it as a legislative body – we can only guess.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January 2017 when the power-sharing parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – split after a bitter row.

Without an executive in place, Stormont cannot affect the abortion laws.

It is unlikely an executive will be established as it needs support from both the unionist and nationalist communities.

Why were politicians recalled?

Several rounds of talks to restore the executive since its collapse have not succeeded.

MPs in the House of Commons have since passed some key legislation for Northern Ireland.

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Sarah Ewart, who was denied an abortion in NI in 2013, was among those outside Stormont

Speaker Robin Newton said the assembly had to elect a speaker with cross-community support as its first business, and could not suspend assembly rules – known as standing orders – first to consider the Defence of the Unborn Child bill.

However, the DUP’s Paul Givan said: “The legal opinion of the attorney general is crystal clear… that it is permissible to suspend standing orders to proceed with business.”

The bid to recall the assembly was proposed by Northern Ireland peer Baroness O’Loan, who opposes any reform of the existing abortion law.

The petition was signed by 27 DUP assembly members, Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann and his party colleagues Robbie Butler and Roy Beggs, as well as Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister.

What are the current rules on abortion in NI?

Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation is very different from the law in Great Britain.

The 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised the rules in England, Scotland and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland.

Currently, a termination is only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life is at risk or if there is a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.

Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal fetal abnormality – where medics believe that a baby will die before, during or shortly after birth – are not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.

Is there anything you’d like to know about this story or wider issues around it? Send us your questions.

If you are reading this page on the BBC News app, you will need to visit the mobile version of the BBC website to submit your question on this topic.

What will happen at midnight?

Abortion will be decriminalised if the devolved government is not restored.

The legislation brought in by MPs at Westminster means the UK government will assume responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to terminations by next April.

Under the act, same sex marriage will become legal in Northern Ireland in January, with the first wedding expected the following month.

What positions are the NI parties taking?

Speaking on Monday afternoon, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald welcomed the “decriminalisation of women that will take effect from midnight”.

She said: “The circus and the farce today in the assembly chamber demonstrates very clearly that what we don’t need is political games, we need serious politics.”

The SDLP has described itself as a “pro-life party” but its politicians are free to vote with their conscience on abortion laws.

After leading his assembly members out of the chamber on Monday, party leader Colum Eastwood said: “The DUP are not serious about getting Stormont back to work.

“These institutions are in grave danger. There cannot be a unionist talking shop.”

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Pacemaker

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Stormont returned briefly, but not to hold talks – the focus was on the issue of abortion

DUP MLA Gordon Lyons said his party wanted to return to Stormont to “take decisions on issues that matter to the people of Northern Ireland”.

The Ulster Unionist Party’s 10 assembly members attended the sitting and the party also proposed a second petition to recall the assembly on Tuesday, but it has since withdrawn its signatures from this petition.

The UUP’s Doug Beattie said his party’s petition was for assembly members to express anger about the collapse of devolution more than 1,000 days ago.

He denied the UUP was engaging in “stunt politics” of its own and said something needed to be done given the absence of formal talks to restore power-sharing at Stormont.

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Both sides of the abortion debate held protests at Stormont

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said none of her party’s assembly members would be attending and she described the recall as a “cynical political stunt”.

“The intention of this recall is not to block abortion law and equal marriage but to create the illusion the DUP are trying to do so,” she added.

Green Party leader Clare Bailey said it was a “shameful pantomime” and that she would not enter the chamber.


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