Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald has said she believes that a referendum on the reunification of Ireland could take place within the next five years.
She was speaking as Sinn Féin is poised to become the biggest party in Northern Ireland with a nationalist First Minister in Stormont for the first time.
Ms McDonald said partition has been “disastrous” and that there will be constitutional change on the island of Ireland within the next decade.
“We believe Irish unity is the best plan, biggest opportunity for all of us who live on this island. Partition has been disastrous, led to conflict and no end of hardship but it has to be done in a way that is planned, orderly, democratic and entirely peaceful,” she told The News Desk on Talk TV.
“So, 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.”
When asked when she would like to see a referendum in the North and one in the South to take place, McDonald said within the next decade, adding that she believed they would be possible “within a five-year timeframe”.
“But much more importantly, I believe that the preparation needs to start now.”
Counting resumed in Northern Ireland Assembly election this morning as there are still a number of seats left to be filled. 47 of the 90 seats had been declared by close of play on Friday night.
Sinn Fein currently has 18 seats and also won the battle for largest vote share with 250,388 first preferences, compared with 184,002 for the DUP and 116,681 for the Alliance Party.
This means that it received 29pc of first preference votes, compared with 21.3pc for the DUP, 13.5pc for Alliance, 11.2pc for the UUP and 9.1pc for the SDLP.
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. Ms McDonald said this is a “huge message of equality and progress”.
Ms McDonald said any changes that unionists wish to see made to the Northern Ireland Protocol will be negotiated between the Government in London and the European institutions.
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey was elected on the first count in Lagan Valley.
After his election he delivered a personal challenge to Boris Johnson to address outstanding issues around the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, which unionists oppose because it imposes economic barriers between the region and the rest of the UK.
He said: “I recognise that we have our differences, particularly in relation to the protocol, but I think we all accept that this is a problem that needs to be addressed and the sooner it is addressed the better for all of us.”
Ms McDonald added that Brexit was a “bad idea” and potentially “catastrophic” for Ireland.
"I hate to be the one to say we told you so, but we told them so, Brexit was a bad idea and Brexit was potentially catastrophic for Ireland,” she said.