In Depth

What is going on at Stormont?

Unionists stage NI Assembly ‘farce’ over abortion and same-sex marriage reforms

Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly sat for the first time in nearly three years in a symbolic bid to block changes to its abortion and same-sex marriage laws.

Critics have described the sitting as a “farce” and a “cynical political stunt”.

So what is going on?

Why is Stormont in stalemate?

Under the power-sharing deal agreed in the Good Friday Agreement, the executive is controlled by both the main unionist party, which is the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the main nationalist party, Sinn Fein.

Having secured the larger mandate at the last election, the DUP was given the post of first minister, while Sinn Fein got deputy first minister, but the two roles “are effectively a joint office, with equal power, and can only exist with the full support of the other”, says The Independent.

The newspaper adds that this arrangement “largely weathered a decade of politics”, but in November 2016, the so-called “cash for ash scandal” saw Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness resign as deputy first minister and the power-sharing agreement collapse.

There have been a series of talks aimed at restoring the executive but all have failed and the main chamber remains mothballed.

Why are they sitting today?

With no executive in Northern Ireland, MPs in the House of Commons in Westminster have passed some key legislation for the province. This included the decriminalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage, due to be implemented next year, unless the devolved government is restored by midnight on 21 October.

“Unionist parties, who oppose the upcoming liberalisation, triggered the recall with a petition,” says the BBC.

However, Sinn Fein refused to turn up. The Alliance Party also boycotted the meeting, with its leader Naomi Long telling RTE News that “nothing has changed” to restore power to the executive and therefore the sitting was a “farce” and a “cynical political stunt”.

What happened in the end?

Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) who turned up today promptly walked out again. Leader Colum Eastwood said his party would not participate in the “stunt any longer”.

With no nationalists remaining, a speaker could not be elected and the power-sharing executive could not operate, meaning the session lasted less than an hour.

The DUP said it was not the end of the matter.

But without an executive of unionists and nationalists, “nothing can be stopped”, says Tim Stanley in The Telegraph. “The DUP will be hoist by its own petard: the United Kingdom that the DUP loves is about to force their community to become more like the rest of the country,” he says.

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