The organisers of a Brexit conference have defended not inviting unionist politicians, insisting the event will instead rebalance their “misrepresentation” of public opinion in Northern Ireland.
The Beyond Brexit gathering in Belfast is the latest initiative by Ireland’s Future – a collective of Irish citizens living in the region seeking to highlight the potential impact of Brexit on their rights and livelihoods.
The movement has already sent a number of open letters outlining its concerns to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar signed by a range of prominent figures, including actors, academics, musicians, business leaders, professional athletes, entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers and doctors.
Among the confirmed speakers at the conference at the Waterfront Hall on Saturday January 26 are Irish Education Minister Joe McHugh, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald, Fianna Fail’s deputy leader Dara Calleary and SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
At a launch event in Belfast on Thursday, co-organiser Niall Murphy confirmed unionist politicians had not been asked to address the audience.
The Belfast-based solicitor said representatives of “civic unionism” would be participating in panel discussions and insisted the conference was open for everyone to attend.
“There are people of unionist heritage who will be on some of the panels but the reality of the situation is that political unionism has presented an expression in the debate in Westminster which is not representative of how the referendum unfolded here,” he said.
“We collectively voted to remain in the EU and political unionism has given a definitive expression to promote Brexit.
“We think that that is inconsistent with the majority view and we consider that the convention of this conference provides an opportunity to rebalance that inequity.”
He added: “Political unionism has set its face against rights, against progressive, inclusive politics and has misrepresented the outcome of the referendum. This jurisdiction voted to remain and that is not being appropriately represented.”
Mr Murphy, who launched the event alongside political commentator Brian Feeney, denied the movement was a front for a pro-united Ireland agenda.
The lawyer, who made clear Ireland’s Future would not be organising as a political party, said the issue of reunification would likely feature in the conference, but it was not its primary purpose.
“The purpose of the conference is to specifically consider and debate what Brexit is imposing on us and for us to have a mature opportunity to respond to that,” he said.
“That a border poll might feature in part of that response is entirely foreseeable and reasonable.”
When the first of three letters to the Taoiseach was published the grouping was referred to as a representation of “civic nationalism”.
Mr Murphy said they were attempting to move away from that description, claiming the movement had become much broader.
“It’s responsive to the engagements we have been having,” he said.
“Going forward this is a conversation which is for all of society. This conversation is open for everybody and we hope and trust that everybody will partake it.”
He added: “It is a movement for everybody that wants to embrace their EU citizenship via their Irish citizenship.”