Belfast Telegraph

Recall of Northern Ireland Assembly is a pointless political stunt, says Sinn Fein

No powers: Julian Smith
No powers: Julian Smith

By Steven Alexander

MLAs are to return to the Stormont chamber for the first time in more than 1,000 days after a petition to recall the Assembly received the 30 signatures necessary.

In July, MPs passed legislation obliging the Government to regulate for access to abortion in Northern Ireland - unless the Stormont Executive is formed by Monday.

Yesterday, anti-abortion campaign group Both Lives Matter said 31 MLAs have signed a petition to force a recall of the Assembly to discuss a motion to put the issue back in the hands of local politicians.

The move is seen as symbolic, since a Speaker would need to be elected and an Executive formed in order to stop the new law. A Sinn Fein spokesman said it would not participate, which would scupper that happening.

"Arlene Foster's 'proposal' to recall the Assembly on Monday is a pointless political stunt, which has literally no impact unless its business is to appoint an Executive who does have the power to effect legal change," a Sinn Fein spokesman said.

Dawn McAvoy of Both Lives Matter said: "Abortion is not and never has been the stumbling block. We hope that it might now be the issue that helps bring the Assembly back.

"We recognise that there is not a unified position on abortion, but there does appear to be agreement that this should be decided at Stormont rather than Westminster.

"We have done all we can to allow each MLA to stand up and say whether they support the Westminster legislation or oppose it. It is over to them now."

It is understood that the petition has been signed by DUP Assembly members, after DUP leader Arlene Foster threw her weight behind it.

It came after former police ombudsman Baroness O'Loan wrote a letter to Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith urging him to recall the Assembly before the change to abortion laws comes in next week.

However, Mr Smith does not have the power to do so, and the focus shifted to a Stormont rule that allows 30 MLAs to trigger a recall by the Assembly Speaker.

TUV leader Jim Allister and Ulster Unionists Robin Swann, Robbie Butler and Roy Beggs signed it.

However, UUP MLA Doug Beattie dismissed the move, saying it would have "zero chance" of success.

UUP MLA Steve Aiken confirmed his party would attend on Monday, as did SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, although he added that an Executive would not be formed.

Mrs Foster told the BBC the move will provide an opportunity for MLAs to show their opposition to the proposed law changes. "Hopefully we will be able to debate the issue on Monday," she added.

Alliance MLA Trevor Lunn said the move was political "showboating".

He said: "It appears those wanting to go back on Monday are only doing so to try and deny LGBTQ people and women the rights guaranteed to them in the rest of the UK. I previously attempted to make some modest changes to abortion law here but that was blocked by other parties.

"There is no doubt there are serious issues remaining unresolved. But serious parties would have engaged intensively on resolving them ahead of Monday, instead of grandstanding.

"Such showboating contributed to the collapse of the institutions and will do nothing to aid their return.

"Indeed, they may make that more difficult."

Alliance is to decide whether or not to attend today.

On Tuesday, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said: "Arlene Foster's call for the Assembly to sit before Monday is a pointless political stunt".

A UK Government spokesman said earlier this week that the NI Secretary "has no power or role to recall the Assembly, as that function is conferred on the Speaker for the Assembly. The Assembly can only be recalled by the Spea ker, by agreement of the parties."

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