The next 10 years are the “decade of opportunity” for Irish unity, according to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald.
While declining to be drawn on a specific timescale for a referendum on a united Ireland, the party president called on the Irish Government to urgently establish a citizens’ assembly to plan ahead on the issue.
“We believe that significant change will happen in the course of this decade,” Ms McDonald said.
“Planning and dialogue and engagement needs to happen now. That process needs to be underway in the here and in the now.”
Speaking on Monday in Belfast at the launch of the party’s manifesto for the forthcoming Assembly election in the North, Ms McDonald insisted its reunification campaign could continue alongside efforts to tackle the cost of living crisis and a “broken” health service.
She rejected suggestions that the party had shifted the focus of its election campaign, priortising economic concerns over unity aspirations.
“We are Irish republicans, people know our position in respect of Irish reunification and referendums,” she added.
“There’s no secret about that, but we know that you can push for that, plan for that, but also work very constructively and not just work constructively, but deliver for people and everybody in the here and now.
“And there has to be a balance struck between those two things and our campaign is fashioned to recognise those bread and butter, lived realities of people.”
The manifesto document pledges to allocate £230 (€270) to all households across the North, in what Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill described as a “substantive initiative”, costing £177 million.
“We want to try to help people in one of the most challenging times we have lived through,” she said.
Funding for the health service must be the key priority for the next executive, according to the document, with the party calling for an extra £1 billion investment in the NHS to drive down spiralling waiting lists and recruit more frontline staff.
Addressing how her party will engage with unionists on a potential referendum – DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has repeatedly claimed that a Sinn Féin election victory will hasten a “divisive” Border poll – Ms O’Neill said it would be “reckless” to ignore the need for constitutional change.
“I think partition has failed all of us, nationalists and unionists alike. I think there is a better future for us, somewhere where we all live side by side, where we have a better health service, a better education system, where we have money in our pockets and a roof over our head.
“That’s a conversation we want to have and I think it’s reckless not to plan for unity.”
She singled out Brexit as a “really good example of how not to do things”, in terms of voters not being equipped with the “right information” prior to a referendum vote.
“We just want people to have the information to make an informed decision about the constitutional future,” she said.
Ms McDonald added it was her “very strong” belief that Irish society “North and South, east and west, is ready for change” in terms of reunification.
“We often refer to this as the ‘decade of opportunity’…we believe passionately that this is the best proposition, the best future that can be afforded to every citizen who lives on this island.”