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After a wait of more than 1,000 days, Stormont collapses all over again

Why the first sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly since 2017 broke down in less than an hour. 

By Patrick Maguire

After a wait of more than 1,000 days, it was all over in less than an hour: the Northern Ireland Assembly’s first meeting since January 2017, convened by the DUP in a last-ditch attempt to prevent Westminster legalising abortion, has broken up with not one but four walk-outs. 

That much is unsurprising. Although a petition was lodged by Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from Arlene Foster’s DUP – along with individual members from the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Traditional Unionist Voice – it was never going to fulfil its stated aim. This, namely, was stopping Julian Smith, Westminster’s Northern Ireland Secretary, from carrying out his obligation to legalise abortion and same-sex marriage in the event that no devolved executive is restored by midnight. 

Predictably, Sinn Féin refused to take part in today’s sitting – instead, with some justification, branding it a cynical publicity stunt. Without them, there can be no executive. But the DUP and Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, ploughed on regardless, and – in a rare moment of synergy with Dominic Grieve – attempted to suspend the Assembly’s standing orders so that they might rush through a private member’s bill upholding the ban on abortion in a single day. 

That got short shrift from the speaker – the DUP’s own Robin Newton – who insisted, having taken legal advice, that no business could be conducted before MLAs had elected a new presiding officer and deputies. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a speaker can only be elected on a cross-community basis. Such a vote was theoretically possible: the Social Democratic and Labour Party’s 11-strong Assembly group did show up. But, refusing to participate on the grounds that to do so would be to undermine the Agreement, they walked out before a vote could be taken. 

Such a course of events was to be expected, as was the DUP’s subsequent response. Foster warned, gravely, that Northern Ireland would soon have the most liberal abortion laws in Europe – which, though true in a purely literal sense, neglects the fact that there will be a public consultation before terminations are made available – before leading her own MLAs out of the chamber. The Ulster Unionist Party followed soon after. 

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All of the parties involved in today’s sitting knew that it would end as it did: with the legal reality unchanged and with no executive formed. Why, then, did they bother? Those overseeing talks to restore devolution believe there is a clear answer: that the DUP, unwilling to pay Sinn Féin’s set price – an Irish Language Act – for restoring an executive, needed to find a means by which to make the legalisation of abortion look like it was being done to them, rather than arising as a result of their own political choices. As much as they robustly reject that characterisation, this is the distinct impression some in the Northern Ireland Office have been given. 

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Just as noteworthy is the attendance of the SDLP. Its leadership did not support the DUP’s petition to recall the assembly, yet a handful of its 11 MLAs – among whom are a handful of staunch pro-lifers – did (a divide that threw the precarity of the party’s electoral position into sharp relief). That left them with an unenviable choice: allow individual assembly members to attend and potentially facilitate the election of a speaker, or turn up as a group and attempt to change the subject to a broader critique of the big two parties’ attitudes to the devolution settlement.  As uncomfortable as the sight of Jim Allister branding the SDLP a “pro-life party” would have been for some of its number – especially Claire Hanna, who faces a tough scrap to win back liberal Belfast South from the DUP – the prospect of individual MLAs embarking on a freelance mission to block legalisation presented far greater perils. 

All present, to one degree or another, made their political point. Yet the most striking was unintended. The entirely predictable haste with which proceedings broke down and the abject inability of the parties to deal with the sensitive issue at hand underlined a truth that belies the DUP’s pretence for recalling the assembly: the question now is not whether devolution will return anytime soon, but whether it can at all. Today’s scenes will have done nothing to disabuse anyone of the belief that both answers are no. Anyone in Westminster who believes that Stormont might provide an easy fix to managing the post-Brexit border could do with watching them.