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Dublin: 3 °C Monday 11 November, 2019
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Walkouts from DUP and SDLP amid farcical scenes in Stormont

Private members’ legislation aimed at thwarting the imposition of abortion reform in Northern Ireland were not accepted.

Today's empty chamber after a series of walkouts.
Today's empty chamber after a series of walkouts.

THE FIRST SITTING of Stormont in almost three years ended in farce this afternoon as there were not enough MLAs present to elect a speaker.

Today’s sitting had essentially come about after anti-abortion MLAs had sought to block the introduction of same-sex marriage and abortion legislation into Northern Ireland.

In July, British MPs voted to introduce the legislation if power-sharing was not returned by today’s date. 

The sitting today, proposed by Northern Ireland peer Baroness O’Loan, received the support of anti-abortion campaign group Both Lives Matter as well as the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice

The required 30 signatures were collected to force today’s sitting but both Sinn Fein and the Alliance Party confirmed ahead of the meeting that they wouldn’t be attending, labelling it “a stunt”. 

The SDLP, which describes itself as a pro-life party but allows representatives a conscience vote on the issue, also criticised today’s sitting.

At the start of proceedings, there was a bid by anti-abortion MLAs to fast-track a piece of private members’ legislation to thwart the abortion reform.

However, outgoing speaker Robin Newton said a new speaker would need to be in place before the Assembly could turn to this bill.

The SDLP attended today’s meeting but leader Colum Eastwood stood up to also label the meeting “a stunt”. He then led a walkout of his party. 

“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 said. 

Newton therefore ruled during the sitting that the meeting could not legally continue. 

“The Assembly cannot do any business until a speaker and deputy speakers are elected,” he said.

This effectively stopped anti-abortion MLAs from introducing their planned legislation.

DUP MLA Paul Girvan argued that advice from Attorney General John Larkin indicated that standing orders could be suspended to allow the legislation to be considered.

DUP leader Arlene Foster also argued that the meeting be temporarily suspended only. 

“It is not a normal sitting of the Assembly, this is a sitting to deal with some of the most fundamental issues that can affect our society today,” she said.

And I implore you to take an adjournment to allow us to have that legal advice, so that we can have that equality of arms.

Newton maintained his stance, highlighting that he had received his own legal advice on the issue.

I am content with the advice that has been offered, I have already indicated that. The legal advice is confidential and privileged and I think really on this decision, and I know this will not be readily accepted, but the decision on the questions of procedure and advice is final.

Foster then led a walkout of her own MLAs 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.”

Outside the meeting, anti-abortion and pro-choice campaigners gathered at the front of Stormont on Monday morning to voice their contrasting views on the emotive issue.

Pro-choice activists held aloft cardboard letters spelling out “decriminalised” in front of Parliament Buildings ahead of the sitting.

Anti-abortion activists held up placards stating that the decriminalisation was not in their name. They also prayed beneath the landmark statue of Edward Carson. 

- With reporting by Press Association 

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Rónán Duffy

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