Former Stormont Assembly Speaker Mitchel McLaughlin has proposed using the 2021 census to test the demand for a united Ireland.
He said there should be a question on the issue included in the population survey.
The former Sinn Fein chair delivered his inaugural lecture as an honorary professor in Peace Studies at Queen's University.
He said: "Perhaps the most constructive contribution that a restored Executive, or in their absence, a Secretary of State could make, would be to arrange for an appropriate question to be formulated for inclusion in the 2021 Census that would permit citizens to declare their support for either of the two constitutional options described in the Good Friday Agreement."
Sinn Fein has previously called for a referendum on Irish unification but the DUP has suggested that would be a recipe for chaos.
The British Government has declined to organise one and said the conditions were not met for a border poll.
Mr McLaughlin added: "The inclusion of such a question would have no constitutional effect, however the objectivity of the process and collation of responses would be essential to a decision on a referendum on Irish unity and in itself an encouragement for developing rational and thoughtful debate."
He envisaged a defining period in Irish political history in the years ahead.
"Brexit presents enormous economic problems that compel us to put all the available options on the table.
"We may, if we have the courage, actually have a unique opportunity to create a future beyond division and sectarianism and build a dispensation that serves the interests of all the people who share this island.
"I am pleased that a discussion has tentatively emerged on constitutional change in Ireland and the promoters for an agreed outcome will need to rise to the challenge of convincing those who are doubtful."
He said republicans were anxious to demonstrate an acceptance of, and respect for the different cultural and national traditions and were prepared to give explicit assurance to almost 900,000 people who could self-determine as British.
Mr McLaughlin also proposed a memorial wall at the stalled development of the Maze/Long Kesh site.
He added: "A sculpture - perhaps modelled on the Washington Memorial Wall - on which could be inscribed the names of every person killed as a result of the 30 years' war that ended in 1998.
"This specially commissioned artwork would enable every victim family to visit the site and to remember and respect and would immortalise the names of all those who had died, of whatever nationality, combatants and non-combatants, those who were killed in Ireland and those who were killed elsewhere."
Former DUP first minister Peter Robinson recently delivered his own peace lecture at Queen's earlier this month on the subject of restoring government in Northern Ireland.