THE reunification of Ireland is the best plan for everyone living on that island and Sinn Fein will push for a referendum on the issue in the next five years, the party’s president has said.

Speaking to Talk TV, Mary Lou McDonald said her party would begin pushing for a referendum if the expected result played out and it became the largest party in Northern Ireland.

While counting for the 90 Stormont seats was continuing on Friday evening, the republican party had won 16 seats, well ahead of the Alliance on four and the DUP and UUP on three.

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Sinn Fein was on course for its best ever result in a Northern Ireland Assembly election. It received 250,388 first preferences, compared with the 184,002 returned for the DUP and 116,681 for the Alliance Party.

McDonald said that her party would be pushing for reunification, but it had to be done in a way that was “planned, orderly, democratic, and entirely peaceful”.

“I would say this, in the first instance we need to start planning now for the change ahead, and that has to involve all of us.”

Asked when she wanted the referendums (one in the North and one in the South) , McDonald said within the next decade, adding that she believed they would be possible “within a five-year timeframe”.

She went on: “But much more importantly, I believe that the preparation needs to start now.”

Sinn Fein’s vice president Michelle O’Neill was elected on the first count in Mid Ulster, with Alliance leader Naomi Long topping the poll in East Belfast.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was elected on the first count in Lagan Valley.

He said he was delighted with his party’s performance in Lagan Valley, adding that it was too early to comment on the overall picture to say what the final outcome might be.

“I think it is going to be very tight at the end as to who will emerge as the largest party,” he said.

“One of the key messages for me is that Unionism simply can’t afford the divisions that exist.”

O’Neill received 10,845 first preference votes and the result was greeted by large cheers in the count centre.

Speaking to reporters shortly before her election was announced, O’Neill said she was “very grateful” to be with the people of Mid-Ulster.

Asked about the possibility of her taking the first minister role, she said: “It is very early to say, let’s get all the votes counted.

“I feel very positive.”

The National: Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald (left) arrives with Vice-President Michelle O'NeillSinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald (left) arrives with Vice-President Michelle O'Neill

She said that Sinn Fein wanted to “together work in partnership with others”.

“That is the only way we will achieve much, much more for people here, whether in terms of the cost-of-living crisis or trying to fix our health service.”

The DUP and Sinn Fein are vying for top spot at Stormont, which comes with the entitlement to nominate the next first minister.

A Unionist party has always taken the most seats in the Assembly, and previously the Stormont Parliament, since the formation of the state in 1921.

While the office of the first and deputy first minister is an equal one with joint power, the allocation of the titles is regarded as symbolically important.

The Northern Ireland Protocol has cast a long shadow over the election campaign, following the resignation of first minister Paul Givan in February in an effort to force the UK Government to act over the post-Brexit trading arrangements.

This action left the Executive unable to fully function.

While ministers remained in post, they were restricted in the actions they could take.

Unionists object to the additional checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain as a border in the Irish Sea.