Stormont has just performed better than Westminster. Signs of a new era dawning for the Northern Ireland Assembly

Social distance voting at Westminster.

Just as Westminster makes an ass of itself over voting against digital voting,  Stormont enters a more hopeful new era. It’s  complicated, even tortuous, but that’s a positive virtue compared  to the old familiar choice between deadlock and carve up.

Correction

I earlier reported the voting wrongly for lack of  information. It  was  even more complicated than I supposed. I’m  indebted to Sam McBride of the Newsletter for explaining how the DUP  and Sinn Fein basically agreed but Sinn Fein couldn’t  bear to vote with the DUP.

In an unusual debate tonight where Stormont discussed abortion for the first time since devolution was restored and widespread abortion was legalised in Northern Ireland, both parties said that they believed the law passed last year by Westminster went too far.

The DUP last year opposed the change, while Sinn Fein said at the time that it supported what Westminster was doing.

However, amid accusations from some MLAs and pro-choice activists that Sinn Fein was playing politics with the issue, the party yesterday argued both in favour of what Westminster had done, while also opposing it.

The debate centred on a DUP motion which said the Assembly “rejects the imposition of abortion legislation which extends to all non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome”.
Sinn Fein tabled an amendment to that motion which said the Assembly “rejects the specific legislative provision in the abortion legislation which goes beyond fatal foetal abnormalities to include non-fatal disabilities, including Down’s syndrome”. As expected, that amendment fell and Sinn Fein then voted against the DUP motion.

That allowed Sinn Féin to both say that it had tried to limit abortion and had opposed the DUP’s attempts to limit abortion.

Neither the DUP motion, which passed by 46 votes to 40, nor the Sinn Fein amendment would actually have changed the law, but are a signal of the Assembly’s will ahead of what is likely to be a legislative attempt by the DUP to limit abortion.

The straight pro choice minority attacked SF in particular. Claire Bailie of the Green Party said SF’s position would mean to women would continue to have to travel to England. “That was not SFs election message of equality for all and compassionate healthcare – this is a clawback of women’s rights.” Alliance MLA Paula Bradshaw accused the DUP and Sinn Féin of “playing politics” with a sensitive matter.”They are trying to imply that any MLA that does support them does not care about children born with a disability, nothing could be further from the truth.”

The Guardian reports the Brexit extension  vote was “a surprise.” I’m not so sure.

In a surprise development Brexit vote a nationalist, green and social democratic parties held sway in Stormont, saying business cannot prepare for a no-deal Brexit in the middle of a pandemic. 

The motion proposed Matthew O’Toole, the SDLP’s Brexit spokesman, had not been expected to carry after opposition was expressed by the Democratic Unionist and the Ulster Unionist parties.

O’Toole commented:  ” For the past 3 years the UK Government said it wanted to listen to NI’s representatives. We’ve spoken – over to them”.

These were simple 50% +1 majority votes,  not formal cross community votes. An added bonus is that they were held undisturbed by the ambush of a petition of concern veto of 30 votes. This is the sort of Assembly vote that will decide whether Northern Ireland remains within the ambit of the EU single market in a few years’ time. Note that in the present Assembly the unionist bloc could not  win a vote to leave the single market.  A  certain flexibility has been created by the absence of an overall  bloc majority.  New majorities on different issues are possible, a development deferred until now because of three years of Assembly suspension.

The abortion vote has no legal effect but was designed to “send a signal” to Westminster.

But the stronger signal of a day of memorable voting shows that old fences are starting to collapse in an Assembly without a sectarian majority. Stormont may be starting to function effectively at long last.