“IN Ireland, public meetings are absolutely necessary preliminaries to any enterprise...  The hard-headed, commercially-minded Ulsterman is just as fond of public meetings as the Connacht Celt."

So spoke the political commentator George Birmingham in 1912. It is likely as true then and it was in the 1840s, just before the forced famine, when hundreds of thousands gathered to hear Daniel O’Connell speak about repealing the Act of Union. Or would be in 1979 when one in every three people living on this island went to hear Pope John Paul II speak across three days. 

Coming together to listen, think and contribute is important to Irish people at any given moment. But also to experience. The chats and anecdotes years afterwards from those “who were there” become nearly as legendary as the content of the speeches given on the day! And those that decided to get the washing done with everyone out of the house, or who just let Joxer drive the bus to Stuttgart without them, sometimes feel a pang of having missed something important, while those that were there share the tales and the memories. 

This weekend in the SSE could well be one of those moments when we come together to create something that changes the air about us. From 12pm to 4.30pm in Belfast constitutional change will be discussed with present and past political leaders, economists, comedians, fashion designers, actors, professors, health experts and writers. It will be a jamboree of ideas, all within the tent of our constitutional future. 

There will be a huge crowd to hear the panel of trade unionists, and not least Mick Lynch, the son of Ireland who gives every working person a language of courage and positivity in the face of the unending assault on people’s living standards and hopes.  Some will come for the former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who has become the unlikeliest of Irish unity advocates, framing all of his comments in the certainty that it will happen, albeit a bit slowly for some. Some will come for DUP founder Wallace Thompson, who is rattling cages of unionist certainty every time he writes or comments; or former UDP spokesperson Davy Adams who this week wrote of his shame when he thinks of his paramilitary past, and is firmly committed to reconciliation.

Others will come to listen to political panels that encompass nearly all political parties on this island, after an election that has yet again indicated that nothing is certain in the political sphere. Michelle O’Neill will also receive particular attention, speaking in her capacity as Vice President of Sinn Féin, as she will undoubtedly be speaking about being First Minister as the implications of the demand for constitutional change yet again shift the complexion of this joint role.

The mood of the audience will be judged nearly as much as the words spoken on the stage, and will form part of the punditry. A half empty hall would still be three thousand people gathered in unprecedented fashion, but the optics would certainly affect the wider debate. A warm reception for the 'Protestant Perspectives' panel will bring encouragement to those from a unionist background seeking a warm house in this discussion. 

Whatever happens, nothing beats being there, in that hall, to be a part of history. To have that memory of the day Ireland moved closer toward its people being reconciled and partition ending.