News | Published October 18 2019

Stormont assembly to be restored after members’ petition

Members of the Stormont assembly are to sit for the first time in almost three years, after 31 members signed a petition for recall in a bid to allow for scrutiny of a proposed change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

Existing laws on abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland will be reformed unless the assembly is fully restored to debate the issue by October 21.

As it stands, the recall will not impact the law changes, since an executive would have to be appointed with support from both nationalist and unionist parties and the dominant nationalist party Sinn Féin has said it will abstain from sitting.

The petition was put forward by Northern Ireland peer Baroness O’Loan, who opposes reforms to the existing abortion law.

Campaign group Both Lives Matter carried the petition forward and receieved signatures from the 27 Members of the Legislative Assembly of the DUP, three Ulster Unionists including party leader Robin Swann, along with Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister. 

It needed 30 signatures minimum to trigger a recall.

Stormont speaker Robin Newton then wrote to all 90 MLAs confirming that the petition had reached the number required to restore the assembly, with the sitting set to go ahead on Monday October 21, likely at 12:00 BST.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said that the sitting will offer the opportunity to debate the proposed law changes on Monday. However, Sinn Féin member Chris Hazzard has said that his party will not be present, which would prevent any prospect of the law change being debated.

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.”

Colm Eastwood, leader of fellow nationalist party the SDLP, labelled the sitting a DUP “stunt”.

Eastwood said: "There won't be an executive formed on Monday, it won't happen and therefore the legislation that is proposed around abortion and same-sex marriage will go through on Monday.”

Steve Aiken, of the Ulster Unionist Party, said his party would sit, after "calling for getting back the assembly for over 1,000 days”.

The power-sharing government in Stormont collapsed in 2017 amid discord over a green energy scheme, with Westminster having to pass key legislation for Northern Ireland in the meantime.

The DUP claims it has long called for Stormont to reconvene, over its opposition to Westminster being able to legislate on issues in Northern Ireland and bypass local ministers.

Yet, other parties in the chamber have accused the party of a "deflecting" tactic, saying the DUP is attempting to switch the focus from Brexit.

Independent unionist MLA Claire Sugden told the BBC in Northern Ireland that she did not sign the petition, on the grounds that it was specifically focused on abortion reforms, rather than a genuine attempt to address the longstanding lack of devolution in Northern Ireland.

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Authored by

Scott Challinor
Business Editor
October 18 2019

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