Northern Ireland’s political fault lines appear to have deepened even further after a last-minute bid to stop abortion law changing failed.
Unionist parties recalled the assembly for the first time in almost three years in an attempt to stop abortion being decriminalised at midnight.
Sinn Féin, Alliance, the Green Party and People Before Profit boycotted the sitting entirely, accusing anti-abortion assembly members of staging a political “stunt”.
The midnight deadline was set by Westminster in July, when MPs voted to change Northern Ireland’s abortion law and legalise same-sex marriage if there was no deal to restore Stormont’s power-sharing government by 21 October.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) tried to halt the abortion changes by fast-tracking a private members’ bill through the assembly, entitled the Defence of the Unborn Child Act
But Speaker Robin Newton, a DUP MLA, ruled that no legislation could proceed until a new speaker was elected, which would require support from both unionist and nationalist MLAs.
The only nationalist party which attended the sitting was the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and its members ultimately walked out in protest.
Emotions ran high both inside and outside the assembly chamber the clock ticked down to one of the most significant legal, medical and social changes in Northern Ireland’s history.
DUP leader Arlene Foster:
“Northern Ireland will have the most liberal abortion laws anywhere in Europe. I think this is a shameful day for those [MLAs] who haven’t come.
“I think when they reflect on it, and when we realise that we have no regulatory system now in place for abortions in Northern Ireland, that it is something that has been decriminalised by 12 o’clock this evening, and it is with incredible sadness that we should mark this day.
“And there will be some who will celebrate today, I would have to say this is not a day for celebration for the unborn Mr Speaker, it is certainly not a day of celebration for them.
“So we may not have been able to prevent this legislation going through today, but let me say this Mr Speaker, this is not the end of the matter as far as this party is concerned.
“We will take every possible legal option open to us.”
Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill:
“This has obviously been a hugely historic day. It’s been a day where we called this out for what it was last week whenever the DUP announced it – that it was a day of political stunts, of antics.
“That’s been borne out by what we’ve just witnessed in the assembly chamber.
“I wish that the DUP and others put as much creativity into actually trying to make power-sharing work as they have done today to try and attempt to deny people their rights, because that’s what today was about.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood:
“We will not be party to a stunt that is using and abusing people’s emotions and sensitivities over a very, very difficult issue, which could have been dealt with at any point over the last 1,000 days.
“But because this is not a serious attempt to do that, because this will only undermine the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and the fundamental thing that people voted for, we will not participate in this stunt any longer and we will not be providing cross-community support for the election of the speaker.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann:
“With what we’ve seen here today, I call now on the secretary of state to actually implement serious, five-party intensive talks to see if this place is actually worth restoring again.”
Mr Swann added that after more than 1,000 days without an assembly, Northern Ireland was experiencing “a health service crumbling, principals in schools not knowing where their budget lies, our infrastructure falling apart, business not knowing if its worthwhile being in Northern Ireland any more”.
“We have missed this opportunity today. There were serious issues that could have been talked about, they are serious issues that affect everybody in Northern Ireland and this pantomime, this fiasco today, has I think demonstrated surely to the secretary of state that now is the time that this place be given serious consideration, if it has any future.”
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry:
“Today’s sitting of the assembly was always going to be a farce. What we have seen so far has actually been a complete and utter disgrace – an attempt to essentially rip up the rules under which this assembly functions.”
“Things are bad enough in Northern Ireland – we’ve had over 1,000 days without a functioning assembly, but what we want back is a proper assembly with an executive and one that can pass proper, scrutinised legislation.
“There is no way that you can bypass those normal procedures at the best of times, but to do so today – when people have had ample opportunity to bring forward attempts through talks or indeed any potential recall petitions – is utterly, utterly farcical.”
TUV leader Jim Allister:
“Until this day in Northern Ireland, the safest place for an unborn child was in the sanctuary of its mother’s womb.
“Sadly from tonight, the most dangerous place for some unborn will be in the mother’s womb, because the wanton decision can be taken to kill it. That’s really what we’re talking about and that is something which rightly provokes a lot of feeling.
“It’s a matter of immense regret to me that this house has not been able to face up to that situation.”
He added: “It’s an illustration of the absurdity of the government or arrangements in this place, that a party such as Sinn Féin – who doesn’t even want Northern Ireland to exist – can by a veto prevent this house from effectively doing any business. Unless and until that is changed, there is no hope for these institutions.”
Green Party leader Clare Bailey:
“The Green Party will not be going into the chamber this afternoon to nominate or support the election of a speaker for this sham pantomime of a debate.
“On midnight tonight, the abortion laws in Northern Ireland and marriage equality laws in Northern Ireland will be changed. We will now have equality across these islands for women and our LGTBQ community as well. This debate will not stop that.
“We feel that what’s happening is an absolute sham so the DUP can say that they fought to the end, when in reality they’ve done very little since this passed through Westminster.”
People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll:
“Today really is a shameful stunt by the DUP to try and block rights for women, for the LGBT community and it’s a real disgrace that they’re trying to do it
“Stormont has been down for over two years, not once did they try to set up Stormont, reconvene it to stop the crisis or discuss the crisis in our mental health services; to discuss the crisis in welfare reform which is ripping apart our communities.
“Today really is a last-ditch stunt by the DUP to try and block rights for marginalised communities in Northern Ireland, so we will not be taking part in that today.