Stormont Assembly to sit in symbolic session over abortion laws

The Stormont Assembly will sit for the first time in two and half years later after it was recalled by MLAs wishing to protest at changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

In an unorthodox step, the plenary session has been convened in the ongoing absence of a powersharing executive.

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

The lunchtime sitting will be largely symbolic, as the Assembly cannot perform its legislative functions without a ministerial executive in place.

While rival MLAs have branded it a meaningless stunt, the members who signed the 30-strong recall petition have insisted it will provide a forum to voice opposition to the imminent decriminalisation of abortion in the region.

While DUP and UUP members are set to attend, the rest of the chamber’s benches will be largely empty.

Sinn Fein has made clear it will not turn up to a sitting it has described as a circus.

It is uncertain how long proceedings will last, as the first item on the agenda is the election of a speaker – a vote that requires cross-community support.

The abortion law will change in Northern Ireland at midnight on Monday when the Executive Formation Act 2019 comes into effect.

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 be stopped if the crisis-hit devolved executive is revived prior to the midnight deadline – a turn of events that is 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.

Copyright (c) PA Media Ltd. 2019, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Niall Carson / PA Wire.