One of Northern Ireland’s leading ‘Remain’ campaigners has urged the organisers of this weekend’s Beyond Brexit conference to rethink their controversial decision to exclude unionist politicians.
Businessman Tom Kelly, who led the NI Stronger In Europe campaign, said the event being organised by Ireland’s Future – a group claiming to represent civic nationalism – at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall on Saturday should be inclusive of all communities.
Branding the exclusion of political unionism “insensitive and insulting”, he said: “The thing is on Saturday so they do have a chance to recalibrate it and have more balance at it. They don’t have to agree what people are saying, but they do have to listen.”
The organisers insist the conference is “open to all citizens” and have denied suggestions it is a front for a pro-united Ireland agenda. But unionists say that is the only logical conclusion given that only nationalist and republican politicians have been invited to speak at the event.
Among those due to address the crowd are SDLP leader Colum Eastwood and Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, as well as senior members of Fianna Fail and Fine Gael.
Writing in his column in yesterday’s Irish News, Mr Kelly said: “Having a collective gurn over Brexit by nationalists of various hues talking to each other actually plays into current polarisation, partisanship and paralysis in Northern Ireland politics. We need more compromise, more conversations across communities – not within them... We need a collective response to Brexit across the entire Northern Ireland community and not a partisan one.”
Speaking to the News Letter, the former vice-chair of the SDLP, said the organisers’ refusal to invite unionist politicians will cause further division and “makes people retrench to the safety of one side or the other.”
Insisting that “excluding anybody doesn’t make any sense”, he said: “It is incumbent on anybody who wants to advocate for a united Ireland to actually have discussions and help shape it with the people they need to persuade to let that happen. It’s not going to happen by speaking to themselves.”
Mr Kelly believes that it is not unionists or nationalists who will be “most disadvantaged by Brexit”, but “the next generation of young people”, regardless of which community they come from.