The first sitting of the Stormont Assembly in two-and-a-half years was to no avail in its last minute bid to stop the decriminalisation of abortion. The law changed at midnight Monday, liberalising abortion and extending same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.
The DUP, who opposed the liberalisation, triggered the assembly’s recall with a petition protesting changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.
Anti-abortion MLAs wanted to fast-track a piece of private members’ legislation, Defence of the Unborn Child Bill 2019, through in a single day to halt the abortion reform.
However, they were told a new speaker with cross-community backing would need to be in place before the Assembly could turn to such a legislative bid.
Electing such a speaker became impossible as leader of the nationalist SDLP Colum Eastwood said his party would not support a speaker if an executive was not formed. Their MLAs then walked out of the chamber.
This left no nationalist representatives remaining, meaning no new speaker could be elected and the sitting was suspended after less than an hour.
In July, MPs at Westminster passed legislation which required the government to liberalise abortion and extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland if devolution was not restored by 21 October.
The DUP also walked out with their leader Arlene Foster saying, “This is not a day of celebration for the unborn.” She said her party would explore “every possible legal option” to them.
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 could not affect the abortion laws.
Several rounds of talks to restore the executive since its collapse have not succeeded.
Prior to Tuesday, Northern Ireland’s abortion legislation was very different to the law in Great Britain.
The 1967 Abortion Act, which liberalised the rules in England, Scotland and Wales, was never extended to Northern Ireland. A termination was only permitted in Northern Ireland if a woman’s life was at risk or if there was a risk of permanent and serious damage to her mental or physical health.
Rape, incest or diagnoses of fatal foetal abnormality, where medics believed that a baby would die before, during or shortly after birth, were not grounds for a legal abortion in Northern Ireland.
Anti-abortion and pro-choice campaigners gathered at the front of Stormont to voice their views.
Leaders of all the main churches in Ireland urged politicians to block the introduction of new abortion laws.