Northern Ireland abortion law: Large crowds in Belfast for opposing rallies

image captionBoth the anti-abortion rally (left) and pro-choice rally attracted large crowds in Belfast city centre on Saturday

Two rallies, one organised by those who support abortion law change in NI and the other by those who oppose it, have taken place in Belfast city centre.

Both protests attracted large crowds, and combined to close roads and halt traffic.

The rallies have taken place ahead of an anticipated change in the rules around abortion in Northern Ireland.

There is no statutory framework for permitting legal abortion in NI, unlike the rest of the UK.

'Seeing the shifts'

The Rally for Choice march started in Writer's Square before making its way through Belfast.

It was addressed by veteran civil rights campaigner Bernadette McAliskey, who said there had been "shifts in the lines that divide social thinking".

image captionCivil rights campaigner and former MP Bernadette McAliskey said the Rally for Choice protest showed we are "seeing the shifts" in "old divisions"

"The people who are gathered here today are not asking people with deeply held convictions to make choices against their conscience, we are asking for the right to make choices ourselves.

"And not to have the theology, ideology, or culture of dominance imposed on our thinking and our choices."

'That is wrong'

Those who oppose abortion took part in the March for their Lives demonstration, which started at Custom House Square.

Among those who addressed the marchers was former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O'Loan, who called for Northern Ireland's MLAs to return to office and legislate on the issue.

She said that life in Northern Ireland was "hugely difficult, because we have no government".

image captionBaroness Nuala O'Loan has called for MLAs to return to a power-sharing government at Stormont

"We can see children suffering, not able to get to school. Hospitals not functioning, we can see so much that is wrong.

"And to compound all that's wrong, to bring in abortion, unregulated abortion, up to 28 weeks. Just like that. And then to move to march, to pass a set of regulations, which cannot be debated and amended.

"That is wrong."

In July, Parliament passed the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act, which includes a provision putting a duty on the government to regulate to provide access to abortion in Northern Ireland.

image captionThe March for their Lives protesters gathered at Custom House Square before setting off

The regulation will come into effect if the Stormont executive is not restored to Northern Ireland by 21 October.

The laws would then be required to be in place by the end of March 2020.

A government report published this month said there would be a "criminal moratorium" around abortion law if the devolved assembly is not restored.

image captionThe Rally for Choice march started at Writer's Square

The document, published by the Northern Ireland Office, said any change on abortion remained a "sensitive devolved issue", and the preference would be to have any legislative change brought forward by a restored executive.

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