Abortion will not be a defining issue in the General Election in Northern Ireland, Mary Lou McDonald has said.

The Sinn Fein president said she expected it would be raised from “time to time” on the doorsteps by socially conservative voters unhappy at her party’s support of the decriminalisation of terminations in the region.

But she predicted that Brexit would be the key determining factor when people decided who to vote for.

Anti-abortion party Aontu is hoping to pick up support from disaffected Sinn Fein voters in several constituencies on December 12.

Ms McDonald acknowledged abortion was a very difficult issue for people.

Abortion was decriminalised in Northern Ireland last month as a consequence of legislation passed at Westminster in the ongoing absence of powersharing.

The Government now has a responsibility to introduce abortion services in the region by next April.

Sinn Fein supports the availability of abortion within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

“I think it’s a really difficult issue for people,” Ms McDonald told the PA news agency ahead of her weekend party conference.

“It’s a rights issue that had to be addressed. And, by the way, it’s not uniquely a northern issue, this is an issue that has long loomed large right across Irish society.

“You know I think most people can understand that you can hold your own personal values, and ethic and live your life in accordance with that, which you’re perfectly entitled to do.

“But, at the same time, lawmakers and legislation have to capture all society and can’t be driven solely by a theological viewpoint.

General Election 2019
Ms McDonald said she did not want to ‘downplay’ the significance of the issue (Sinn Fein/PA)

“I think most people get that, I think even people who do struggle with the issue of reproductive rights and with abortion, I think understand that.

“I think people also understand that this election is a big election and people will weigh up all of the issues and all of the merits and otherwise of the candidates.

“But you see for people who are looking to Sinn Fein I think, and I hope, that the issue of preserving our way of life, preserving Irish agriculture, protecting people’s jobs, protecting our peace, I hope that that will define the decisions that are taken.

“That said, I take nothing for granted. I mean, we have to go out and talk to people, we have to listen to people.

“We have to convince people of the merits of our position and our candidates and I would encourage people to come out on the day to use their votes.”

Ms McDonald said she did not want to “downplay” the significance of the issue.

“It’s a very, very important issue and people feel very strongly but I don’t believe it is the defining issue in this election,” she said.

The republican leader added: “So yes, it comes up on the doorsteps but I don’t want to overstate that either. And any issue that comes up on the doorsteps, the Sinn Fein canvassers and candidates, we will listen, we will explain our position and we’ll debate, we’ll debate any issue.”