Unionist leaders should join Sinn Féin in negotiating a shared future in a united Ireland, deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said.
In a speech that highlighted the role of former IRA prisoners in the Sinn Féin team at Stormont, he said unionists had accepted historic compromises once thought impossible.
Mr McGuinness told supporters in Derry, commemorating hunger striker Kevin Lynch who died in the 1981 Maze prison protest, that the political landscape had been transformed.
He said that 20 years ago the DUP “built its hardline reputation on gun licences on hillsides, red berets and blackthorn sticks, ’Smash Sinn Féin’ slogans and sledge hammers”.
But the deputy First Minister added: “Who would ever have believed in 1989 that the very same DUP would be left with no other option than to embrace an inclusive, power-sharing, all-Ireland framework of political institutions as the joint equal partner with Sinn Fein on terms set out by the Good Friday Agreement?
“Who would ever have believed in 1989 that we would now have legislation which leaves the DUP with no other option than, when addressing the needs of victims, to recognise that the relatives of IRA volunteers killed on active service are absolutely equal – absolutely equal – to the relatives of Crown forces personnel killed by the IRA?
“Who would ever have believed in 1989 that developments on the Justice front would demand that the appointment of the most senior law officer in the six counties – the new position of Attorney General – needed the joint approval of the Sinn Féin and the DUP joint First Ministers?”
The DUP said it had blocked republican ambitions at the Assembly and accused Sinn Féin of trying to disguise that it had failed to deliver on pledges to supporters.
But Mr McGuinness told republicans at the event in Park, Co Derry, that the Maze hunger strike led by the IRA’s Bobby Sands had transformed politics and helped form today’s power-sharing regime.
Mr McGuinness named a string of Sinn Féin colleagues working with him in the political institutions who had been either IRA hunger strikers, prisoners or who had survived being shot by security forces or loyalists.
He said: “So when you see the Assembly on TV, or look at Gerry Adams or Bairbre de Brún or myself in the media, always remember this: standing at our shoulders are the women and the men who stood at the front of the struggle when there was no alternative option but war, and who – when the time was right – had the courage and commitment and skills to create the new phase of peaceful and democratic change into which we have successfully led this society.”
He added: “In the time ahead the best option for unionists is, I believe, to join – as equal, and influential, participants – in the onward march towards all-Ireland unity and national reconciliation.
“Yes, some within unionism are working to slow up progress...But the hard lesson of the peace process is that – some day soon – even the Afrikaner wing of unionism will be brought to a place it never wanted to be.”
He added: “My strong preference, and that of the Sinn Féin leadership, is that all sections of the DUP – and indeed unionism – will now embark fully on the pathway to equal partnership, and a future of national unity and national reconciliation in Ireland.
“For unionists, that pathway starts in recognising and embracing the equality agenda in Stormont and the other Good Friday Agreement institutions.”
But the DUP’s Diane Dodds said her party was frustrating republican ambitions in the Assembly.
“At the time of the last Assembly election Sinn Féin made various promises to their electorate,” she said.
“Whilst their manifesto was long on promises, they have been proven short on delivery inside the Assembly.
“That is because of the hard work of the DUP.
“By staying on the field of battle in Stormont and by not running away from Sinn Féin, as some advocate, we have ensured their agenda cannot be advanced.
“Using devolution we have brought the Sinn Féin agenda to a grinding halt.”