Some Northern Ireland assembly members were returning to Stormont on Monday for the first time in nearly three years in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the province’s abortion law from being reformed by the UK government.
It comes as Westminster gave the region until midnight October 21 to reach an agreement and restore its power-sharing government, warning that if the deadline was missed it would step in and reform Northern Ireland’s laws on abortion and same-sex marriage directly from London. The power-sharing executive collapsed in January 2017 because of a spat over a renewable energy policy.
Monday’s – likely short – session of the Assembly was triggered after anti-abortion lawmakers signed a petition triggering a recall, to discuss the decriminalization at Stormont. The signatures were mostly made up of Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) members.
Abortion law in Northern Ireland is considerably different from legislation in the rest of the UK – with the procedure carrying maximum sentences of life imprisonment, even in cases of rape, incest and fatal fetal abnormality.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said in a statement last week that she urges “other MLAs who oppose the extreme liberalization of our abortion law, to step outside any Party shackles and join us in recalling the Assembly.”
She added that it was “time to get Northern Ireland moving again.”
Despite efforts by the DUP and other anti-abortion lawmakers, the recall isn’t likely to affect Westminster’s plans to change Northern Ireland’s law, as the region would need to appoint a full new Executive and that won’t happen without Irish republican lawmakers Sinn Féin, who branded the recall a “stunt.”
“Arlene Foster’s ‘proposal’ to recall the assembly on Monday is a pointless political stunt, which has literally no impact unless its business is to appoint an Executive who does have the power to effect legal change,” a spokesman for Sinn Féin told the PA news agency.
The region’s complex power-sharing arrangement – established as part of the peace process – means that both the nationalist Sinn Féin party and the unionist DUP must work together, and appoint a First Minister and Deputy First Minister who would lead the Executive together.