Belfast Telegraph

Alex Kane: Stormont was messy, it looked sneaky... and it might just have ended up making a difficult situation much, much worse

It was a bad day for the Assembly, a bad day for Northern Ireland and a wretched day for political parties who seem incapable of agreeing on anything, writes Alex Kane

DUP leader Arlene Foster and party members pictured at Stormont where local MLAs returned to the chamber to debate laws on abortion and same sex marriage which will change at midnight
DUP leader Arlene Foster and party members pictured at Stormont where local MLAs returned to the chamber to debate laws on abortion and same sex marriage which will change at midnight
Alex Kane

By Alex Kane

The Creasy amendment, an amendment to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which provided for the extension of abortion rights to Northern Ireland if the Executive hadn't been rebooted by October 21, was passed in the House of Commons on July 9.

Yesterday - 104 days later, as the clock ran down to midnight - the DUP unveiled the previously unheard of Protection of the Unborn Child (Northern Ireland) Bill 2019. This would have involved suspending standing orders and moving the Bill through all of its stages before midnight.

Yet, one of the reasons the DUP gave for voting for the Letwin Amendment (Parliament would withhold formal approval for Boris Johnson's Brexit deal until all of the implementing legislation had been passed) in the House of Commons on Saturday, was that it provided enough time for detailed scrutiny and discussion.

But yesterday, it sought to rush - and there really is no other word for it - through an unseen Act in the Assembly in a matter of hours and, by suspending standing orders, without the necessity of other parties or even a Speaker.

Had Sinn Fein attempted to do this on any other issue, I'm pretty sure the DUP's MLAs would have been roaring their objections from the rafters. And rightly so.

So, 1,008 days since the Assembly last sat, it returned yesterday to what gave the very clear impression of being an attempt by the DUP to hijack the proceedings, processes and rules to thwart an amendment which had passed in the House of Commons by 332 to 99.

And, after that had been done - had it been done - it was similarly clear that the Assembly would return to its mothballed status again.

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Ironically, it was a DUP MLA, the Speaker, Robin Newton, who stood in the way.

While not denying that, as Arlene Foster noted in a later Press statement, "the Assembly was properly recalled", he refused to accept the argument in favour of allowing the proposed Bill to be introduced and debated. He refused to be drawn into a "my legal advice is better than your legal advice" dispute. He also rejected one point of order after another.

That can't have been easy for him. He has been a member of the DUP for around 40 years and is close to many of their MLAs. He knew how much he was angering them: it was obvious from both their faces and their body language.

He knew the scale of the potential damage he was doing to his standing and reputation within the party. He knew how much damage he was probably doing to relationships within his Church.

He knew that elements of the party and its wider voting base would hold him personally responsible for the introduction of new abortion regulations to Northern Ireland. So, it is a credit to him that he stood his ground.

There is another point worth noting: the lack of any attempt to continue the prohibition on same-sex-marriage.

The DUP made a very serious, thought-through, bold attempt yesterday to continue the prohibition on abortion, yet not a single word on same-sex-marriage.

Had the party made a calculation that it would go for just one issue (reckoning that it couldn't win two battles)? Or had it deliberately left same-sex-marriage untouched, hoping to offer it as a peace offering; something it was finally prepared to live with? Slipping it through the net, in other words.

Putting it bluntly: DUP voters are far more concerned about abortion than same-sex marriage.

The DUP also needed a huge distraction at next Saturday's annual conference from its fall-out with Boris Johnson and growing grassroots rumblings over new borders and possible "constitutional slippage".

Abortion is a big issue for the grassroots and Foster needed to look as though she had made a serious effort to stop the changes.

But quite why she couldn't have pushed for the recall a few weeks ago is beyond me. Indeed, the recall petition wasn't even kick-started by the DUP, but by Baroness O'Loan and the Both Lives Matter campaign.

There was more than a touch of farce and chaos about yesterday's events and it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the party (with help from Jim Allister and the Attorney General) was acting on the hoof.

The outcome is far from ideal, but at least the DUP can go into the election - which is probably only weeks away - claiming to have tried and then blaming Newton, the SDLP and anyone else it can think of for putting up obstacles.

Yesterday was messy. It also looked sneaky. I can understand the concerns that extending abortion regulations to Northern Ireland (particularly in the absence of a proper debate and legislative process through the Assembly) raise for hundreds of thousands of people, but this was never the best way of addressing those concerns. Indeed, it might simply have ended up making a difficult situation very much worse.

Anyway, I'm not even certain that a Bill smuggled through in those circumstances would, in fact, have received Royal Assent.

Yesterday's events have also probably made it a little bit more difficult to fully reboot the Assembly.

A couple of weeks ago, that probably wouldn't have bothered the DUP too much, for it was still in a fairly cosy relationship with the Conservatives.

But now? It was a quasi form of direct rule which led to the changes in abortion and same-sex-marriage regulations at midnight.

If the Secretary of State concludes that devolution is unlikely anytime soon, he may also conclude that full-throttle direct rule cannot be avoided. That, I think, would hurt unionism far more that nationalism.

For all sorts of reasons, it was a bad day for the Assembly and a bad day for Northern Ireland. It was a wretched day too for our political parties, who have drifted further apart and seem incapable of reaching agreement on anything.

Irrespective of where the blame lies, I don't get any sense of the support bases of either the DUP or Sinn Fein egging on their respective leaderships to cut a deal built on compromise. Indeed, their electoral prospects seem to rise the further apart they move.

So, the primary lesson to take from yesterday is that the curtain may be about to come down for the final time. This is an Assembly without power, without respect, without support and without the civility and willingness to co-operate, which is essential for progress in Northern Ireland.

It cannot get anything done at local level and nor can it prevent decisions being imposed upon us from London.

If it has a purpose anymore, I can't for the life of me see what that purpose is.

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