NORTHERN Ireland’s new First Minister Michelle O’Neill has said she expects a vote on Irish unity to take place in the next decade.

The Sinn Fein vice president said that she felt the country was in a "decade of opportunity” after powersharing institutions at Stormont returned after a two-year hiatus. 

O'Neill became the first-ever nationalist to assume the post of First Minister during a historic sitting of the Stormont Assembly on Saturday.

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UK Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said she did not want to speculate on the comments by O’Neill.

After the DUP announced last week that it would end its boycott of the powersharing institutions, Sinn Finn leader Mary Lou McDonald said Irish unity was now within “touching distance”.

O’Neill echoed those sentiments during an interview on Sky News’ Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips show, where she said her election as First Minister demonstrated the “change that is happening” on the island of Ireland.

She said: “That is a good thing, it is a healthy thing, this change can benefit us all.

“When Mary Lou McDonald talks that it is within touching distance, I believe that we are in the decade of opportunity.

The National:

“I believe also equally that we can do two things at once; we can have powersharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services while we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations.”

Asked if this meant there would be a unity referendum in the next decade, O’Neill said: “Yes. I believe we are in a decade of opportunity and there are so many things that are changing.

“All the old norms, the nature of this estate, the fact that a nationalist/republican was never supposed to be First Minister.

“This all speaks to that change.”

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Keegan told the programme it was “fantastic” to see Stormont back up and running.

Asked about the unity comments, she said: “I don’t want to speculate on that. What is actually fantastic is to see Stormont back up and running.

“It has been a long time and I know lots of people have been working towards this day. That is where things that affect Northern Ireland will be discussed.

The National:

“So, it is right that they are there and it is right that the ministers are now there and able to take big decisions.”

Keegan said she would not try and “second guess what will happen in Northern Irish politics”.

Shadow digital minister Chris Bryant said a border poll in Northern Ireland may “come at some point”.

He said: “You can never predict what is going to happen in the future just because of what happened in the past but, yes, that (a border poll) may come at some point, I don’t know.”

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When asked whether there should be a poll, he said: “It is not for me to decide what should happen in Northern Ireland. That’s for the people of Northern Ireland.

“That is for the people of Northern Ireland to decide but, as I say, it depends on how the politicians play their hands over the next few years.”

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the power to call a border poll rests with the Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris.