The new Sinn Fein First Minister of Northern Ireland has said she expects there to be a referendum on Irish unity by 2034.

Michelle O’Neill, who became the region’s first Nationalist leader on Saturday, said “the old norms” were changing and a “decade of opportunity” lay ahead.

UK Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said she didn’t want to “speculate” on a Border poll.

Under the 1998 law behind the Good Friday Agreement, a vote on whether Northern Ireland, which was established in 1922, should leave the UK and form part of a united Ireland is triggered if it “appears likely” that most voters in the North would support the change.

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Ms O’Neill became First Minister in an historic sitting of the Stormont Assembly after a two-year deadlock in which the DUP boycotted the powersharing institutions.

Speaking on Sky News’ Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips show, she said her position demonstrated the “change that is happening” on the island of Ireland.

The Sinn Fein vice-president also echoed the party’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, who said it showed Irish unity was now within “touching distance”.

Ms O’Neill 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.

“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 that meant there would be a unity referendum in the next decade, Ms 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.”

The Herald:

Responding for the UK Government, Ms Keegan said it was “fantastic” to see Stormont back up and running.

But 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.

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

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

Labour’s shadow digital minister Chris Bryant said a border poll in Northern Ireland may “come at some point”.

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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.”

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.”

The power to call a border poll rests with the UK Northern Ireland Secretary, currently Chris Heaton-Harris.

Irish reunification and the break-up of the United Kingdom could give huge impetus to the campaign for Scottish independence.