THE symbolism was hard to avoid. Padlock and chains came off the gates at Stormont, and seats were probably dusted as, for the first time in 1000 days, politicians reconvened in Northern Ireland’s Assembly.

The reason for breaking the shameful deadlock that has put democracy on hold for three years was not to pick up business where they left off, nor to attempt to bridge the irreconcilable gulf between warring parties, but to block one of the most significant pieces of legislation to be passed in Belfast in years.

Pro-choice campaigners, and hundreds of thousands of women across the country, won a victory on Monday. Despite the objection of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and anti-abortion crusaders, it was ruled that from midnight it would be legal to have an abortion in Northern Ireland, as in the Republic of Ireland, as in the rest of the UK.

With the passage of this legislation, women in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy who wish to have a termination will no longer have to skulk out of the country, or purchase online pills, rendering them open to prosecution should these make them so unwell they require medical attention.

After next April, following an interim period during which access to services on the mainland will be freely available, the situation in Northern Ireland will change radically. Those who are pregnant as a result of incest or rape; those who know their foetus has an incurable disease that will allow them little quality of life for as long as they survive; those who have been told they must go full term, even though the baby has died, will finally be given a degree of dignity and comfort. At last, they will be able to end a pregnancy of their own volition, in their homeland, without stigma and with the full support of the medical professionals who tend to them.

It is a not a subject for wild rejoicing, as was evident in the sombre response of campaigners on learning the law had been passed. The mood was more of relief than jubilation. Nobody can feel joy at the idea of a pregnancy that, for whatever reason, is better ended.

But it is possible to feel gratitude that an old and crippling injustice, a hangover of a puritanical stranglehold on women’s lives, has been overturned. As of now, Northern Irish women are entitled to decide on their own welfare and that of their unborn child. It is a right that is not only legal but ethical.

That these new laws are among the most liberal in Europe is remarkable, given the strength and tenacity of opposition to this issue. It must exacerbate the fury of the anti-abortion camp to watch the political mothership in London impose its will with such vigour.

That this has happened under a Conservative government with which the DUP was in partnership, is an added grievance. As is the fact that even the Republic of Ireland, once a by-word for religious conservatism, last year voted to allow terminations (up to 12 weeks, not 24). This volte face was salt in the wound for pro-lifers and pro-choice activists alike.

The measure of how historic this landmark will prove can be gauged by the opening of the padlock on the Assembly’s gates. Sinn Fein did not turn up, but Arlene Forster, leader of the DUP, announced that, despite this act, her party would explore “every possible legal option” to prevent the provision of abortion services within their borders.

A fuming zealot was less restrained: “in today’s world the most dangerous place to be is actually in the womb of a woman”. There could hardly be a more calculated insult to womankind, but the depth of this man’s misogyny highlights the intensity of prejudice and oppression with which the pro-choice lobby has had to contend.

This momentous step is good news for the United Kingdom, as is impending legislation to allow same-sex marriage from next January. All this is positive. Yet it is a sad day for the Union that both decisions, which will have far-reaching social implications, are not the work of Irish politicians but of Westminster.

Since the Assembly collapsed in January 2017, its day to day business has been handled by civil servants. You might argue they are doing such a good job they are enabling Sinn Fein and the DUP to maintain their stand-off. That not even the murder of the journalist Lyra McKee could encourage these parties to put aside their quarrel indicates the bitterness and division at the heart of Irish politics.

Yet while the Assembly has been lying all these months in an induced coma, London has not been idle. Those on the pro-choice side of the debate might have mixed feelings, since their argument has been vindicated thanks to action by the English. Time was when anything that came out of Westminster was regarded in certain quarters as toxic. How ironic, then, that the Assembly’s denizens have allowed their internal wrangling, their myopia and obstinacy, to allow an often loathed overlord to step into their shoes and usher voters into a more compassionate age.

That must be galling for everyone. Then again, perhaps not. When Stormont reconvened for the space of roughly an hour, squabbling made any hope of constitutional challenge impossible. It was hardly edifying. Rather than acting as a reminder that the Assembly’s members have the power to settle the country’s affairs without interference from outside, it was instead a shambles, a pantomime whose script had been lifted straight from the myth of Pandora’s Box.

I would not be surprised if, following this, some are wondering if they should dispense with the Assembly altogether, since they are better served by panjandrums across the sea. Others, meanwhile, will be looking south towards the Republic, anticipating the time when old divisions are lifted, and all of Ireland is united peacefully once more.

What lies between now and that day, should it ever arrive, will be turbulent, to say the least. For the meantime, it is paradox enough that it has taken Westminster to unlock the chains in which Northern Ireland’s women have been shackled. The symbolic significance of this long overdue act should give the refusniks at Stormont pause for thought.