Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: After three years off stage, this was a pathetic performance by our politicians

Paul Givan
Paul Givan
Robin Newton
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The pantomime season came early to Northern Ireland yesterday as our Assembly came back from its 1,000 day absence.

A piece of high-class political theatre it was not. Farce at its finest was on display as MLAs engaged in stunts, squabbled and then stormed out of the chamber in quick succession of each other.

There were never mass demonstrations on our streets demanding 'Bring Back Stormont'. But after watching the proceedings, many people will now be saying 'Please Don't'.

Nobody involved in this spectacular sham emerged with any dignity.

The sitting was meant to begin at midday but was put back an hour amidst heightened speculation over the arrival of Attorney General John Larkin, and what it would mean.

The word was that the DUP would bring forward a Protection of Life Bill, hours before abortion was due to be legalised at midnight.

Sinn Fein, Alliance, the Greens and People Before Profit boycotted the proceedings.

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Outside Parliament Buildings, those both in favour and against the decriminalisation of abortion and same-sex marriage made their voices heard. Anti-gay marriage campaigners assembled at Sir Edward Carson's statue. Pro-choice campaigners were a little further up the hill. "What do we want? The right to choose. When do we want it? Now!" they shouted. At the steps of Stormont, pro-life activists stood silently holding their placards and white roses which they said were symbols of the innocence of the unborn.

In the chamber, unionist MLAs and the SDLP took their seats at 1pm and awaited Speaker Robin Newton.

He effectively dashed the hopes of those on his own party benches by saying that no business could happen until a new speaker was elected with cross-community support. DUP MLA Paul Givan was first on his feet to insist that advice from the Attorney General indicated standing orders could be suspended to allow the legislation to be considered.

For once, TUV leader Jim Allister was in total harmony with the DUP. The Speaker said he was content with his legal advice. He declined repeated requests from Arlene Foster and DUP MLAs to share that advice or to adjourn so he could meet Mr Larkin.

Time and time again as he was "implored" by his own party to do so, he said no.

If the DUP wanted a John Bercow-type Speaker, this one wasn't playing ball. Mr Newton certainly proved his impartiality yesterday. After making a short speech, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood declared that he and his MLAs were off.

Shouts of "Shame! Shame!" rang out as they left the chamber.

Mrs Foster said it was disgraceful that Northern Ireland would now have "the most liberal abortion laws in Europe". It was not "the end of the matter", she warned before the DUP walked out.

UUP leader Robin Swann delivered a few lines, and then his MLAs, Mr Allister and independent unionist Claire Sugden were gone.

The Speaker was left addressing an empty chamber. "The Assembly is adjourned," he said to literally nobody. After almost three years off stage, this was a pathetic performance by the Stormont players that brings the whole production into question.

Belfast Telegraph

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