Mary Lou McDonald has called for a national conversation on the right to die, saying the political system has “dragged its heels” on the issue.
The Sinn Fein chairman said campaigners like Vicky Phelan, who have called on the government to introduce laws to give terminally ill people the option of medically assisted death, presented “a really compelling case”.
Ms McDonald said that while the issue is “tense and sensitive”, that does not absolve lawmakers from taking action, and that the debate must not drag on “endlessly for another decade”.
She said: “I think Vicky and indeed others made a really compelling case based on human dignity and human choice.
“I follow very carefully what they have to say.
“I also listen very carefully to those who provide palliative care, all of whom value dignity in death.
We have to listen to all perspectives, then we have to make a decisionMarie-Lou McDonald
“I think we have to work our way through this with a lot of thought, because it’s quite a heavy and sensitive issue.
“The fact that it is loaded and sensitive does not exempt us, as legislators, from making decisions and moving the debate forward.
“I like to think that we won’t have a debate around this issue that drags on for another decade.
“I mean, I think we’re at a point now where we have to have the conversation, we have to listen to the evidence, we have to listen to all the perspectives and then we have to make a decision.”
Ms McDonald said that while she has yet to take a firm position on the matter, a decision is needed sooner rather than later.
She told the PA news agency: “I have an open mind about it.
“I don’t have a fixed or firm view, except that the political system has dragged its feet.
“We have to come to a position where we make a call on things and to do that, and to do it well and to do it honorably, we have to have all the perspectives.”
The topic has been brought to the fore by campaigners like Ms Phelan, the terminal cervical cancer campaigner, who has publicly called on the government to act.
She supported legislation put forward by People Before Profit TD Gino Kenny, the Dying With Dignity Bill 2020, but expressed frustration at the lack of political will to act on the issue.
Ms McDonald praised Ms Phelan, saying she was paying close attention to her campaign.
“I mean, what an amazing woman, what an amazing lawyer,” she said.
“Everything she says, and people like Vicky, definitely lands with me and I hear it loud and clear.”