Stormont Assembly to sit for first time in two and half years to debate abortion law changes

Abortion-rights demonstrators march through the streets of Belfast ahead of the meeting of the Stormont Assembly.
Abortion-rights demonstrators march through the streets of Belfast ahead of the meeting of the Stormont Assembly.
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The Stormont Assembly will sit for the first time in two and half years later after it was recalled by MLAs wishing to protest at changes to Northern Ireland's abortion laws.

In an unorthodox step, the plenary session has been convened in the ongoing absence of a powersharing executive.

The noon sitting will be largely symbolic, as the Assembly cannot perform its legislative functions without a ministerial executive in place.

While rival MLAs have branded it a meaningless stunt, the members who signed the 30-strong recall petition have insisted it will provide a forum to voice opposition to the imminent decriminalisation of abortion in the region.

While DUP and UUP members are set to attend, the rest of the chamber's benches will be largely empty.

Sinn Fein has made clear it will not turn up to a sitting it has described as a circus.

It is uncertain how long proceedings will last, as the first item on the agenda is the election of a speaker - a vote that requires cross-community support.

The abortion law will change in Northern Ireland at midnight on Monday when the Executive Formation Act 2019 comes into effect.

• READ MORE: MPs back changes to Northern Ireland abortion and same-sex marriage laws
MPs at Westminster successfully amended the Government bill in the summer to include measures to end the near blanket prohibition on abortion and introduce same sex marriage.

Once the 19th Century laws that criminalise abortion lapse at midnight, the Government will assume responsibility for introducing new regulations to provide greater access to terminations in the region by next April.

In the interim period, women will be offered free transport to access abortion services in England.

Under the Act, same sex marriage will become legal in Northern Ireland in January, with the first wedding expected the following month.

The law changes regarding abortion and marriage could only be stopped if the crisis-hit devolved executive is revived prior to the midnight deadline - a turn of events that is extremely unlikely.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) presented a petition, backed by over 6000 Northern Irish citizens, calling on the Democratic Unionist Party to make one last effort to stop the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland ahead of the recall.

SPUC Northern Ireland Political Officer, Liam Gibson said: "This recall of the Assembly marks what is one of the darkest days in all our troubled history. It is only right that our elected representatives acknowledge this officially. From being amongst the safest places in the world for unborn children, Northern Ireland will now have the most extreme abortion regime in Europe."