Those who portray unionism as intransigent and opposed to a rights-based society “need to be faced down,” the SDLP leader has said.
Colum Eastwood said such an “inflammatory narrative” and ongoing dialogue around a “new Ireland” risks alienating unionists.
However, Mr Eastwood said, he is also aware that “unionism is not limited to, nor defined by, the politics of Arlene Foster” – a reference to a recent interview in which the DUP leader said she would probably leave the country in the event of a united Ireland.
“I am all too aware that talk of a new Ireland risks sending some in this community to the hills – and I am very sensitive to that fact,” he told his party conference at Titanic Belfast on Saturday.
“Those who have framed the inflammatory narrative that unionism as a whole is unchanging, doesn’t believe in rights, and can’t be worked with – those people need to be faced down. They also need to hear that while we want to shape the change ahead, we want to make Northern Ireland work right now.
“There are many within the unionist community who are willing to engage and who are willing to explore new possibilities.”
Mr Eastwood added: “We all have a duty to tell our unionist neighbours – you belong to this place every bit as much as I do – therefore you have the very same right to shape the future of this island.
“Those of us who believe in a new Ireland need to offer a credible and positive vision – we will not protest our way into one.”
Mr Eastwood called for the re-establishment of the New Ireland Forum, a cross-border body set up by the Irish government in 1983.
He said the forum was the best way to provide the “definition and detail” of what a “new Ireland” would look like, and that “no referendum should be called until that work is done”.
On Brexit, he said the Irish government “must know that we need full clarity on the border this side of the summer” and added: “We can’t let it slip until the EU Council meeting in October. The backstop is not our first choice, but it is our ultimate protection.”