Dissident republicans will never be the IRA.
That was the uncompromising message from former IRA hunger striker Pat Sheehan as he addressed the annual Belfast Easter commemoration at the Republican Plot in Milltown Cemetery. In a passionate address the Sinn Féin MLA also said the Irish government should give people in the North a say in who becomes the next president of Ireland in preparation for unification.
Sheehan said giving people in the North the chance to vote in the Irish presidential election, due in October, would be a simple measure that the Dublin government could take to prepare for Irish unification.
He also called on republicans to continue to talk with unionists to allay their fears of a united Ireland, which he says is within reach.
"We need to continue working, we need continue building our political strength and we need to be preparing for a united Ireland," said Sheehan, who replaced Gerry Adams in the Assembly.
"We have to use our electoral strength to pressurize the Dublin government to begin preparation for a united Ireland and one simple thing the Dublin government could do is to ensure that people in the North have the vote this year in the presidential election.
"We also need to continue talking to unionists who have to allay their fears about a united Ireland."
Sheehan also used his speech to hit out at dissident republican groups for their continued use of violence.
The former hunger striker was greeted by warm applause when he said so-called republican "micro groups" who have carried out a number of recent attacks including the murder of Catholic police officer Ronan Kerr, will never achieve what the IRA achieved. "Unfortunately there are others out there who will continue to justify the use of force - they can't justify it," he said.
"Some even say they are the IRA. I was in the IRA, there was only one IRA and the people out there can use whatever combination of letters or words they want to describe themselves but they will never be the IRA. They will never achieve what the IRA achieved and they will never have the support that the IRA had."
He said that Sinn Féin is trying to send a positive message by building organisational and political strength in Ireland.
"We see no partition on this island, we see it as one country and that's the way project will continue," he added.
Earlier thousands of people had lined the Falls Road as the annual Easter parade made its way to Milltown Cemetery.