By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) - Watershed elections in Northern Ireland have shown Irish nationalists that their goal of uniting with the Republic of Ireland can be achieved, nationalist leader Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein said on Thursday.
While the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP)narrowly remained the largest party after last week's snap elections to the provincial assembly, Sinn Fein surged to within one seat of their rivals and denied unionist politicians a majority for the first time since Ireland was partitioned in 1921.
Sinn Fein's calls for a vote to unite the two sides of the Irish border had already increased after Britain voted to leave the European Union in June.
Adams said nationalists must now win over unionists to the idea of a unified Ireland two decades after their sectarian conflict over Britain's control of Northern Ireland came to an end.
"It was very much a watershed election. It clearly was a vote for Irish unity but the unionists still have a majority (among the population) and there is still a big onus on us to persuade them that this is how their future would best be developed," Adams told Reuters in an interview.
"I don't want to see the unionists in the place that nationalists used to be in. We need an entirely new Ireland, we need an Ireland which unionism is comfortable with, that they have an ownership of and that they agree to."
Nationalists were mainly behind the highest turnout at an election in Northern Ireland in two decades, but analysts said this was more a result of anger towards DUP policies and worries over Brexit, than a push for a united Ireland.
Support for Irish unity is lukewarm south of the border. Just over one third of people surveyed in the Irish Republic said they would like to see a united Ireland in "the short to medium term", a cross-border opinion poll carried out for the British and Irish state broadcasters found in November 2015.
Before debating Northern Ireland's constitutional status, Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the IRA, must reach an agreement with the DUP to restore their power-sharing government at a time when relations are at their lowest point in a decade.
They have until March 27 to form a government to avoid either devolved power returning to London for the first time since 2007 or the prospect of a third election in less than a year.
"We don't envisage failure at this point. Maybe we won't succeed but there really is no reason why, if the will is there, that these talks don't conclude positively. It's a process and it's very much work in progress," Adams said.
SENSE OF EXPECTATION
Adams, who was banned from speaking on British airwaves at the height of Northern Ireland's "Troubles", forcing broadcasters to dub his voice with that of an actor, said Brexit had already begun to shift opinions on the subject of Irish unity.
Northern Ireland is considered the region of the United Kingdom most economically exposed to Brexit, due to its close trade links to the Irish Republic, an EU member. It will inflict huge damage on every town and village across the island, Adams said.
"It's not exactly tangible, it's a sense of expectation, a sense of hope, a sense of doabilty," Adams, speaking in Dublin's parliament, where he is a member, said of the feedback his party had received on doorsteps ahead of the election.
"Ten years ago Scottish independence was a minority occupation for men in kilts. Most people in Scotland hadn't really bought into it but now they have. The same thing is going to happen in my opinion for those of us who want Irish unity."
With support rising for secession in Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Thursday her country could hold an independence referendum late next year, just months before Britain is due to leave the European Union.
Under a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of sectarian violence, Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can call a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland.
Adams said such a decision will ultimately be "above the pay grade" of the minister for Northern Ireland and only be taken by a British government under pressure from an Irish Prime Minister who supports a poll.
"All of this indicates that we are into a very, very interesting phase of Anglo-Irish history," the Sinn Fein President said.
Will that mean the lifelong ambition of a united Ireland coming true in the 68-year-old's lifetime?
"It depends how long I live ... But my hope is yes."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)