N.Irish lawmakers fail to thwart abortion law change in rare assembly sitting

Belfast (AFP) –


A group of Northern Irish lawmakers on Monday failed in a last-minute bid to thwart the liberalisation of abortion laws, set to come into force after being decided by London during the suspension of the Belfast executive.

Dozens of Northern Irish Assembly members briefly returned to their devolved parliament for the first time in nearly three years, largely in protest at the looming decriminalisation of abortion in the British-ruled province later Monday.

The regional government in Belfast collapsed in January 2017 amid a breakdown in trust after a scandal over a renewable heating scheme split the power-sharing executive, and has remained shuttered ever since despite several bids to resurrect it.

Abortion is currently illegal in the province, except when the mother's life is in danger, but the situation is set to change at midnight.

With Northern Irish lawmakers not sitting, the British government in July passed legislation changing the province's laws on abortion and same-sex marriage, which is also illegal, into line with those in the rest of the UK.

The assembly has until the end of Monday to pass its own legislation stopping that.

However, the return of around a third of the members of the 90-seat chamber was brief and descended into acrimony, breaking up without any action being taken.

The majority of those appearing at Stormont were members of the conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), led by Arlene Foster.

Members from Sinn Fein, one of the two major parties representing Northern Ireland's Irish Catholics, boycotted the sitting, branding it "a circus".

The SDLP, the other main Republican party, did attend but walked out of the chamber amid divisions over whether a new executive and speaker could be selected.

- 'Affront to human life' -

"The assembly cannot do any business until a speaker and deputy speakers are elected," outgoing speaker Robin Newton, from the DUP, told the assembly before it broke up.

The party's leader Foster said it was a "very sad day".

"We will have to take a look at all of our legal options," she added.

Michelle O'Neill, the left-wing Sinn Fein party's leader in Northern Ireland, earlier described the event as "stunt politics".

"They're going to discuss issues which they can do nothing about. That's all about being dishonest with the public," she said Friday.

"We want to be in the assembly but we need to get the issues resolved that brought the assembly down."

Celebrations are expected in the province to herald the change in the law, while opponents stage protests.

"This is undemocratic and it's wrong," Bernadette Smyth, director of Precious Life Northern Ireland pro-life campaign group told AFP outside Stormont.

"So it's important that we're here today to be a voice for the vulnerable -- unborn children in our society."

Pro-life group Both Lives Matter said 31 assembly members signed the recall petition allowing parliament to sit on Monday.

"I know some people will seek to celebrate today and I would say to those people: 'Think of those of us who are sad today and who believe that this is an affront to human dignity and to human life'," the DUP's Foster added.