The leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, has said she could not tolerate living in Ireland if the island were to be reunited.
Her hardline comments come amid renewed discussion of the legacy of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Foster made the remarks in a programme focused on peace and reconciliation for the 20th anniversary of the peace deal.
During the programme, comedian Patrick Kielty, whose father was murdered by loyalists, asked the former first minister: “If the majority did want to join the Republic of Ireland how would it feel to be a unionist, outside of the UK?”
She replied: “If it were to happen, I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here, I would feel so strongly about it. I would probably have to move.”
There has been criticism of the message her comments send amid a public perception that a united Ireland is increasingly likely.
A Sinn Fein spokesman said the DUP leader’s comments were “indicative of the lack of leadership in political unionism”.
The spokesman said the prospect of Brexit and ongoing demographic changes had “propelled the debate on Irish unity centre stage”.
“This follows the DUP leadership’s failure recently to deliver a reasonable accommodation which would have seen the restoration of the political institutions on the basis of equality and respect,” he said.
The comments have also conflicted with new efforts at unionist outreach by Sinn Fein, whose Easter commemoration speeches spoke of the “journey to reconciliation” and Sinn Fein’s willingness to explore “new all-Ireland constitutional models”.
There have been reports that Sinn Fein is set to propose retaining the current Six-County Assembly within an all-Ireland framework.
“We want an agreed, united Ireland for the many, not the few,” said Sinn Fein Chairperson Declan Kearney in Castlewellan, County Down.
“This Easter, Sinn Fein once again extends the hand of friendship to our unionist neighbours.
“The prospect of Brexit borders, shared economic and social challenges, and the needs of future generations, all represent common ground.
“Our party wants a dialogue about the need for a managed transition towards a pluralist all-Ireland constitutional democracy.”
In her address to a commemoration in Belfast on Easter Sunday, Sinn Fein’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill, called on Foster to embrace reconciliation.
“The whole point in having joint heads of government in the Executive is because there is a responsibility on the two main political leaders to bridge the divide between us and those we represent,” she said.
“That is what I am up for. That is where I am focused. But I need a unionist leader who is up for that also, so that together we can serve the entire community fairly.”