It will be next year before the Government agrees proposals on the abortion issue, Health Minister James Reilly has indicated.
He insisted that while the issue could not be put "on the long finger", time was needed for a "thorough and proper" consultation.
"This is a hugely complex issue that has divided this country time and time again over the last 25 years, and I don’t think it’s something that we’re going to solve in a matter of weeks."
Asked if that meant early in the new year before any decisions were made, he said he did not wish to preempt the Cabinet but added: "That’s my view.
"You have to match the urgency of the situation with the need to have a thorough and proper consultation and a plan to deal with it. I don’t think that we can rush this in weeks, but nor do I think can we afford to leave it for months and months on end."
Dr Reilly also revealed that the report of the expert group on abortion has not been furnished to Attorney General Máire Whelan, despite her being the legal adviser to the Government.
Highlighting the political sensitivity around the issue, he said he gave copies of the report only to the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, and would not bring it to Cabinet until tomorrow week, Nov 27.
Dr Reilly said his own legal advisers in the Department of Health would consider the report, and that they would have access to the attorney general’s office as and when required.
A Government source last night insisted there was "nothing unusual" in the report not going immediately to the attorney general.
"She’ll get it when it’s circulated [to the wider Cabinet]," the source said.
Dr Reilly said it would be "an absolute derogation of duty" by him not to deal with the abortion issue. But he added that both Fine Gael and Labour TDs would want their say on the report and there would be the need for a wider consultation.
His comments came as Labour Housing Minister Jan O’Sullivan said her party was of the view primary legislation would be required, meaning a Dáil vote. "Certainly our analysis in the Labour Party is that it is likely to need legislation."
It was reported yesterday that Fine Gael is pushing to avoid a Dáil vote and wants to provide "legal clarity" on the X case ruling without actually legislating for it.
This could be done, for example, by way of a statutory instrument issued by the minister which would not require a Dáil vote.
In the 1992 X case, the Supreme Court ruled that abortion is permissible in cases where there is a risk to the mother’s life, including the risk of suicide.
But no government has ever legislated to clarify exactly when a mother’s life is deemed to be at risk or the criteria which should apply in such cases. The expert group was set up to examine how legal clarity could be brought to the issue.
Meanwhile, 53 left-wing MEPs have written to the Taoiseach saying the death of Savita Halappanavar "highlights the need for immediate action to introduce legislation for abortion".