The DUP has interpreted comments by Gerry Adams as an admission that the hope of a united Ireland by 2016 is abandoned.
While the Sinn Féin leader spoke in a New Year’s interview of stepping up the unification campaign by beginning fresh lobbying in the United States and Great Britain, he also spoke of 40-year spans for change.
While Mr Adams did not give a start and end date for his 40-year span, he discussed unification in detail and did not mention 2016.
Mr Adams said his party wanted to encourage debate towards ending partition.
“All of this is part of a process,” he added.
“I like to judge it - because it’s convenient to do so - in a 40-year span.
“And 40 years in a lifetime is huge, but in history it’s only a blink.
“If you consider what things were like here (across Ireland) 40 years ago in terms of both the Orange state; the conservative, impoverished state in the south; the fragmented and very minimalist republican development.
“And then you fast-forward to now -- without for a moment minimising all the tragedies and difficulties that have occurred in between - you can see how things have moved ahead.
“That’s what’s going to happen in the up-coming period. It’s an incremental process of building the republic day-by-day.”
The DUP has now claimed that the goal of unity by 2016, the centennial of the Easter Rising, had been quietly dropped.
He said: “We have become accustomed down through the years to habitual pronouncements from Sinn Féin that their primary aim of achieving a united Ireland was a few short years away from becoming a reality.
“In 2000, Mr Adams himself spoke of how he saw ‘no reason why we cannot celebrate the 1916 Rising in the year 2016 in a free and united Ireland’.
“This view was echoed by Martin McGuinness in 2003 when he said: ‘Gerry Adams has said 2016 and I think that is achievable’. Now, Gerry Adams is talking about 40-year spans. So much for Sinn Féin’s boasts of Irish unity by 2016.”
Regardless of just when Mr Adams sees 40 years coming to an end, Mr Hamilton said Sinn Féin had “set aside their smugness and the supposed certainty of a united Ireland by 2016 for an undefined date in the distant future” which appeared to be beyond the lifetimes of the current leadership of republicanism.
This pessimism on the part of republicans was in stark contrast to the sense of inevitability about a united Ireland which was felt by many unionists in the past, he said.
“Gone are the days of doom and gloom under the UUP, to be replaced by the strong and confident leadership offered by the DUP,” Mr Hamilton said.
“Unionists now see the status of Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom stronger than ever and republicans robbed of their dreams. The DUP strategy is working. We have turned the tide.”
Meanwhile, the North’s First Minister, DUP leader Peter Robinson has questioned the role of the ministerial body that examines all-Ireland issues.
In his New Year message, the DUP leader questioned the use of the North-South Ministerial Council, which is strongly supported by Sinn Féin and the SDLP.
The council was established under the Good Friday Agreement and modified by the St Andrews Agreement which paved the way to devolution in 2007.
“After St Andrews the North-South Ministerial Council may be politically benign,” Mr Robinson said. “But is it really the most effective use of our time and resources? This is not a comment on the value of North-South co-operation for in all of the economic difficulties that we face one vital boost has been the stimulus to our economy from the Border, the value of euro against sterling and lower UK VAT rates.”
He also called for progress on the devolution of policing and justice in the year ahead.
“I hope that in 2009 we can also see further progress in the area of the devolution of policing and justice, but we also have a responsibility to ensure that the powers that we already have are exercised as efficiently and effectively as possible” he said.
The DUP leader’s statement was seen as setting the scene for an election confrontation later this year with Jim Allister, the leader of the hardline unionist party, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). Allister currently holds a seat in the European Parliament, and will be the target of an intense campaign by the DUP to retake the seat.
In a pre-election challenge, Robinson has also ‘warned’ that Allister could split the unionist vote and allow Sinn Féin to top the European poll in 2009.
“It is rank hypocrisy for the DUP to pretend concern about Sinn Féin advancing to the top of the poll when it was they who advanced them to the heart and very top of government,” said Allister, in response.
“Hypocrisy which is compounded by their determination to split the vote against two sitting unionist MEPs.”