300,000-name anti-abortion petition 'collection of nine previous petitions'
A 300,000-signature anti-abortion petition hailed as the largest ever presented to the Stormont Assembly was a collection of nine previously collated petitions, one dating back as far as 2001, the Justice Minister has said.
Around 50 boxes full of signatures collected by pro-life campaign group Precious Life were delivered to Claire Sugden last month.
It came amid the ongoing debate on whether a law banning abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities should be lifted in Northern Ireland.
A 45,000-strong online petition advocating a law change which was compiled by Amnesty International had been presented to the Assembly weeks earlier.
Ms Sugden, in response to a written question tabled by Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw, said the Amnesty petition was collected between January and October 2016 and was signed by people across the UK.
In regard to the Precious Life petition, which was presented to the Assembly by DUP MLA Jim Wells, the minister said none of the nine petitions related to the issue of fatal foetal abnormalities. She said the most recent of the petitions was from 2014.
Mr Wells told the Assembly the petition had been signed by Northern Ireland residents.
Ms Sugden said some of the addresses provided were not in Northern Ireland.
The minister stated: "What I received on November 28 consisted of 47 boxes containing multiple petitions dating from 2001/02 to 2014.
"In all, there were nine separate campaigns identified by my officials, relating to subjects such as, in 2001/02, ensuring that the human rights of unborn children are protected in proposals from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on a new Bill of Rights; plans by a 'group of pro-abortion MPs' to change the law on abortion in Northern Ireland in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, due for debate in the House of Commons in February/March 2008; and opposition, in 2012, to Marie Stopes International opening a clinic in Northern Ireland.
"There was no petition relating to termination of pregnancy for fatal foetal abnormality and no petition dated after September 2014.
"There were also addresses identified in the material provided which were not in Northern Ireland."
Addressing the Assembly in November, Mr Wells said: "Today I am presenting you with what I believe to be the largest petition ever received by the Northern Ireland Assembly - 300,000 signatures - not 45,000 - 300,000 signatures, calling for the protection of unborn children in Northern Ireland.
"These have been signed by Northern Ireland residents who have given their address and can be verified so therefore I believe that this petition is indeed authentic."
Mrs Bradshaw branded the petition "misleading".
"Considering the latest material from Precious Life is from nine campaigns covering a 14-year period, I would ask: How many individuals are actually supporting these campaigns?" she asked.
"How many people have signed for more than one campaign? How many of these signatories for one campaign realised their names would be added to other campaigns they may not support? How many are from outside Northern Ireland?"
Northern Ireland's restrictive abortion laws are a highly divisive issue in the region, with vocal advocates on both sides of the debate. At present, terminations are only permitted when there is a serious risk to the health of the mother.
The two opposing petitions were handed to the Assembly at a time when ministers in the Stormont Executive continued to consider the recommendations of an expert panel tasked to examine the ban in respect of cases involving a diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality.
No decision has yet been taken.