THE huge range of political parties and representatives were really important at the Ireland’s Future conference at the weekend. The island’s political establishments were firmly in the room. 
An Tánaiste, Leo Varadkar, said as much by his presence as he did in the content of his speech. The man due to be Taoiseach in a few short weeks did not use the occasion to announce a break in current policy but is in the unity headspace. The other Taoiseach-in-waiting, Mary Lou McDonald TD, walked on to the stage like a rock star and got a reception to match. Hers was a carefully crafted speech which focused on the need to plan for a border poll. But there was little hyperbole and a reinforcing of the strong messages since the Brexit vote by England. Our people’s future and wellbeing lies collectively on this island. The audience was receptive to both leaders’ messages, if a little more warm to MaryLou.
The other women to raise the roof were Ailbhe Smyth, Paula Melvin, Bríd Smith and Reverend Karen Sethuraman. Ailbhe Smyth will have statues built to her in years to come. She has been the consistent warrior for women on this island, a key figure in the referenda to end the bar on divorce and introduce health care for women. She knows how to win. She speaks to people, she identifies with real experiences and her writing and speeches reflect needs, loves, hopes and aspiration. Paula Melvin, President of Conradh na Gaeilge stood up for the rights denied to so many Irish citizens living north of the border. She took on cultural lies and fear-mongering with a smile and directness that had young Gaels on their feet in appreciation. Bríd Smith, PBP TD, got down and dirty with the type of new Ireland needed: a fair one, where opportunity for all is secured and housing and wealth is distributed fairly. The crowd was cheering in response.
But the audience’s full warmth was reserved for Rev Karen, Ben Collins and Jimmy Nesbitt. Protestants from Unionist backgrounds who took a chance and came to exchange their views. They presented challenges, they presented opportunities and they presented hope. The audience were clearly thirsty for their opinions and responded not just with respect but with genuine appreciation. The audience needed to hear about the challenges we all know about, presented with clear and thoughtful challenge. They are a part of the all-island discussion and they are making their own mark. And we are all the better for it.

Jimmy Nesbitt’s was an incredibly thoughtful contribution, worth reading in its entirety. He however mentioned something no one else did – victims and survivors have a place in this discussion. The past is with us and will never be left behind. Two days later he was standing in a bog with the brother of Columba McVeigh as they continue to the search for his disappeared remains.
Jimmy Nesbitt is a man of character and courage and walks the uncomfortable walk. Our country is right now in the most important era of change in 100 years. There is a place for all of the integrity, generosity and courage we can get. 
That night we passed the statue of Charles Parnell which proclaims “No man (sic) has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.” 
Charlie knew.