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Recall of Stormont offers slim hope abortion law could be blocked

The Northern Ireland assembly will meet in a special sitting after a recall petition succeeded.

In July MPs at Westminster voted to radically change the devolved abortion law in Northern Ireland.

The legislation was drafted in such a way that all criminal aspects of the abortion law would be removed on 22 October unless the Northern Ireland Assembly was reformed by that date. The law will remove all explicit legal protections from the unborn child until they are capable of being born alive and introduces no limits on abortion for any reason.

Regulations will be consulted upon and implemented after the criminal law has been removed and before 31 March 2020, but this creates the potential for up to five months where there are little or no regulations or restrictions on abortion. We are very concerned that this is a bad law being implemented through a bad process and that vital protections are being removed from both women and unborn children.

Since July, huge efforts by Both Lives Matter and others have seen more than 100,000 postcards sent to Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) asking them to reform the Executive. Church leaders and many others have voiced their concerns, and the unity of purpose and prayer within and across the Christian community has been tangible. Around 20,000 people attended a silent protest at Stormont and a cross-denominational prayer event was so full that people were lining the street outside to pray.

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On Thursday, 26 September, Baroness O’Loan, with the support of groups such as Both Lives Matter, launched a petition calling for Stormont to be reconvened. The petition has received more than 25,000 signatures. 

Then last week, on 10 October, Both Lives Matter sent an email to all MLAs asking them to pledge to return to the Assembly before 22 October, to appoint executive ministers and deal with matters of major importance. MLAs were asked to respond by Wednesday, 16 October at 12pm. 

More than 30 MLAs signed the pledge. In the interim, Baroness O’Loan renewed her call for the Assembly to be reconvened, and various groups became aware that there is a mechanism for 30 MLAs to do this under the standing orders of the Assembly. Both Lives Matter invited every MLA to be a part of that process and on Thursday, 31 MLAs from across three political parties signed this recall petition. 

This means that the Northern Ireland Assembly has now been called to sit on Monday at 12pm. The Assembly sitting will not stop the law changing – an Executive must be reformed, with the appointment of the ministerial positions agreed by midnight on Monday, 21 October. Whatever the outcome, this is a dramatic climax to these profoundly important events.

Predictably, the sitting of the Assembly has been dismissed as a stunt by some parties and spun in many political directions. There is no doubt that there is a lot of frustration that the Assembly has not sat for more than 1,000 days and other important matters such as welfare reform have not been addressed. 

There is no doubt that there is a lot of politicking going on as the future relationship of the nations in these islands in and around a potential Brexit deal is being navigated. 

However, there is no doubt that this, though slim opportunity, offers a way for this legislation to be prevented and for more appropriate local legislation to be debated and legislated in the Assembly.

How individual MLAs and parties respond is a matter for them, but those behind this initiative are genuinely committed to seeking the best for both women and their unborn children. It is over to the MLAs; we have done all we can to facilitate the opportunity for each MLA to stand up and say whether they support the Westminster legislation or oppose it. The lives of our unborn children are in their hands.

And yet, finally and thankfully, they are not. The lives of our unborn children ultimately remain in the hands of our sovereign Lord. Though we struggle to understand events as they unfold before us, we strive to trust His unfailing heart and hand. Please pray for us, for Monday specifically and, more broadly, in the days ahead which continue to look dangerous and foreboding. Please pray that even in this present darkness, the seeds of hope, life and redemption are being sown. 

About the author

David Smyth is public policy lead at Evangelical Alliance Northern Ireland and coordinates the Public Leader: Northern Ireland course. He is a former solicitor and represents the Evangelical Alliance on a range of government, civic and charitable forums. He serves in the space where faith, law, politics and culture intersect.

See more from David Smyth

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