Sinn Fein claiming that it has paused its border poll planning is like Gerry Adams saying he wasn’t in the IRA, the DUP leader has said.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson called on Michelle O’Neill to “come clean” about her “divisive” plans.
Meanwhile, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Ms O’Neill’s comments, when she acknowledged that people were not waking up thinking about reunification at present, but problems caused by soaring bills, were an admission by the party that it was living in “fantasyland”.
On Tuesday, Ms O’Neill said it was no secret about her desire for a united Ireland, “but I am focused for today on the cost-of-living crisis”.
But Sir Jeffrey said Sinn Fein “should be honest with the people of Northern Ireland”.
“Sinn Fein telling us they’ve paused their border poll plans is like Gerry Adams telling us he wasn’t in the IRA,” he said.
Mr Adams has consistently denied he was a member of the IRA, though unionists have challenged this.
Sir Jeffrey added: “The DUP is the only party that can stop Sinn Fein’s border poll plans. A first preference vote for any party other than the DUP will divide and weaken the unionist cause and help Sinn Fein win and deliver on their border poll plan.” But Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie urged people to reject the “message of fear” promoted by some within unionism.
He pointed to a poll this week which suggested only a third of people would vote for Irish unity at any point over the next 10 to 15 years.
“In spite of a great deal of talk in certain quarters about a border poll, the reality is that the Union of over 67 million people delivers for all the people of Northern Ireland and it is secure,” he said.
“The much-promoted message of fear, used by some within unionism as a political tool, is no longer credible and should be rejected. It is designed to keep people at heel, to stop them rising up and asking for better, from seeing the failure that has been delivered over the last 15 years and asking questions as to why.”
In Belfast on Wednesday, Mr Eastwood, the SDLP leader, said Sinn Fein had realised it was living in fantasyland calling for a border poll at a time when people are struggling to feed their families.
“It’s slow learners as usual,” Mr Eastwood said. “We have been saying to them for years to stop calling for a border poll ‘now’.
“That work has to be done of course, the conversation has to be heard, but people are struggling every single day and Sinn Fein four weeks out from an election are now beginning to talk about people’s problems instead of talking about border polls.”
A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: “Sinn Fein wants to see Irish unity.
“There is no contradiction in our commitment to power-sharing, co-operating with others and delivering for all in the political institutions and our support for Irish Unity.
“Sinn Fein is committed to tackling the cost of living crisis facing workers and families, getting the Executive back up and running and investing an additional billion pounds in the health service to tackle unacceptable waiting lists.
“This election is about real change and about the future. It is not a border poll. That will come in time and we must prepare for it through a Citizen’s Assembly where all views can be heard.’’