The DUP has immediately rejected a renewed Sinn Fein campaign to convince unionists of the merits of a united Ireland.
Nationalists and republicans need to adopt a new approach to reach out to unionists, Gerry Adams has said.
Addressing a Sinn Fein conference in Belfast, the party president predicted a successful vote to end partition could come within a “few short years”. However, he said that outcome would only be achieved if unionist opposition was “unlocked”.
The Sinn Fein-organised event, titled ‘An Agreed Future’, was held at the Waterfront Hall last weekend.
Mr Adams said recent election results - in which both parties made gains - demonstrated that a “deep political schism” remained on unification. He said republicans needed to advance more than just an economic case to end partition.
“We need a new approach, one which unlocks unionist opposition to a new Ireland by reminding them of their historic place here and of the positive contribution they have made to society on this island,” Mr Adams said.
“Instead of concentrating on the negative aspects of our four centuries of shared history I suggest that we embrace the areas of agreement and of co-operation; of good neighbourliness and the common good.
“A truly united Ireland will emerge from the reconciliation of the people of this island based on equality.”
Mr Adams urged groups such as the anti-Catholic Orange Order to engage with Sinn Fein, called on republicans to reflect on the contribution Protestants had made in Ireland for centuries.
“The reality is that in the 400 years of their presence on this island Protestants and especially northern Protestants, have been woven into the narrative that constitutes the history of Ireland,” he said.
“While that narrative has been at times a troubled one it has also been dynamic.”
“The Brexit referendum vote last year, the Assembly results in March, the Westminster election results this month and the census conclusions from 2011, are evidence of a shifting demographic and political dynamic in northern politics. Within a few short years the potential for a vote to end partition and unite Ireland is a very real possibility.”
He called for advocates of unification - both politicians and within society - to “consciously address the genuine fears and concerns of unionists in a meaningful way”.
“It also demands that we look at what unionists mean by their sense of Britishness and be willing to explore and to be open to new concepts,” he said.
“Hopefully as part of this process they too will be willing to explore what is meant by Irishness.”
He again called for the leadership of the Orange Order to meet with Sinn Fein’s leadership on these issues.
“Our task must be to ensure that it is a shared future which looks after every citizen, and in which everyone accepts the right of the other to be Irish or British - to be unionist or nationalist or republican,” he said.
He added: “The days of leaving the debate on a united Ireland for another time are over. It can’t be done. The debate has already begun. The changes - demographic, political, social and economic - are happening as we speak.”
Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O’Neill told the conference that the recent Assembly and Westminster election results have “activated a transformation unimaginable to the founders of the Northern state”.
She told delegates Brexit is “incompatible” with the Good Friday Agreement.
On her vision for Irish unity, she added: “We must advocate for it, campaign for it and win the debate for it.
“But Sinn Fein do not own the debate or the idea of a united Ireland. It belongs to everyone who shares this island together.”
In an immediate response, DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr was mocking of the effort.
“Hahahahahaha-hahahahahaha-hahabababababha-hahahahahahahah-ahahahahahahahah- ahahahahahahahah-ahahahahahahaha-hahahahahahaha-hahahahahaha,” he wrote on Twitter.
And fellow MP Jeffrey Donaldson called on Sinn Fein to reject the IRA and their “violent past”.
He pointed to comments made by new Sinn Fein MP Elisha McCallion spoke at the annual Derry volunteers commemoration, which saw hundreds of republicans gather at Derry’s city cemetery to pay tribute to IRA heroes.
Speaking on Sunday, the day after Sinn Fein’s conference in Belfast, she said that the spirit and memory of fallen IRA Volunteers is with her and her party colleagues in every meeting and every engagement at Stormont, Westminster, the European Parliament and the Dail in Dublin.
Donaldson described the comments as offensive to victims and it was time that Sinn Fein “moved on” from “their violent past”.
“Constantly harking back to the violence of the IRA does nothing to strengthen the peace process and in fact only serves to undermine confidence in and support for the peace process,” he said.