Latest: A hardening of the border will be met with a demand for a unity referendum, the Sinn Féin president has told a Brexit conference.
More than 1,500 people attended the Beyond Brexit event in Belfast, which examined the future of Northern Ireland and the Republic after the UK leaves the EU.
During her speech, Mary Lou McDonald called for the Government to convene a forum in a bid to begin planning for Irish unity.
The event was organised by Ireland’s Future, a collective of Irish citizens living in Northern Ireland seeking to highlight the potential impact of Brexit on their rights and livelihoods.
Other speakers at the Waterfront Hall included SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Education Minister Joe McHugh and deputy leader of Fianna Fáil Dara Calleary.
Ms McDonald said crashing out of the EU with no deal in place would lead to a hardening of the border.
“There are no ‘little Irelanders’ here and we will not tolerate the narrowness of the Brexiteers or policy of isolation imposed by Brexiteers,” she said.
“A crash means a hardening of the border and the loss of rights and continued uncertainty and instability.
“A hardening of the border is inconceivable and will be met with the demand for a unity referendum.
“We don’t exactly know what will happen over the next few weeks or months. It’s not in our hands, it’s in the hands of a minority Tory Government in London, and that is the crux of the problem.
“It’s irresponsible and arrogant for a Dublin Government to shout down any prospect of a unity referendum.”
While there were no Unionist politicians speaking at the event, Ms McDonald issued a direct message to the unionist community saying they would “have a home in a united Ireland”.
She added: “You will have a place at the table, a place at the centre of political life and not left in the margins of Westminster.
“The Protestant, loyalist and unionist community are part of the fabric and diversity of our nation and they must be part of the discussion in shaping the new Ireland and be partners in building a new Ireland.
“Our shared and often troubled history can be reconciled. Regardless of Brexit there will be a unity referendum.
“It’s our job to secure that, to win it and win it well.”
Mr Eastwood, however, said now is not the right time for a border poll.
“There are Unionists who are willing to engage and explore new possibilities,” he said. “Unionism should have nothing to fear in a conversation based on persuasion and consent.
“My appeal to unionism is this – try to convince us of your vision for the future and we’ll try to convince you of ours – and then in time let the people decide.”
He also raised his concerns over the hardening of the border, saying it would be a “deliberate violation” of the political process by the British Government.
“There is no getting away from the fact that Brexit has changed everything and will continue to change everything,” he added.
Mr McHugh, a Donegal TD, told the crowd it is “imperative” that the peace process is protected.
He added: “The impact of Brexit will of course be felt across this island in many different ways.
“We are doing everything we possibly can to prepare for and mitigate those impacts.
“We believed it was imperative to protect the hard-won progress in repairing and building the three sets of relationships encompassed by the Good Friday Agreement which were all supported and improved by our common EU membership.
“We have never sought to use the context of Brexit to advance any other political agenda.”
Referring to last Saturday’s New IRA car bomb in Derry, Mr McHugh said it was an “appallingly reckless act of terror”.
Mr Calleary was critical about how Brexit has “consumed” political systems, adding that issues on both sides of the Irish Sea have been “minimised and forgotten about”.
He said: “The issues about health, homelessness, infrastructure, are all relegated. Those are the issues that people’s lives are dependant on, yet the energy of politics, the energy of the civil service, has been consumed by this political process.
“We cannot ignore issues like climate change, we cannot ignore inequality in our education system, health and housing system.
“We have to come up with a process that can deal with the issues around rights-based legislation and issues that are blocking the return of the institutions.”
Meanwhile Niall Murphy, a Belfast solicitor and co-organiser of the event, criticised the DUP’s opposition to an Irish language act.
He described it as an example of the DUP’s “sneering contempt for parity of esteem”.
He added: “Our language is an intrinsic part of all of our identity as citizens, yet we endure contemptuous taunts, such as Curry My Yoghurt and Crocodiles, and the cancellation of microscopic bursaries for the Donegal Gaeltacht.”- Press Association
Earlier: The future of Ireland is the topic at a major civic nationalist conference taking place in Belfast this afternoon.
Over 1,000 people are attending the Beyond Brexit event organised by Ireland's Future.
Speakers include the Education Minister Joe McHugh, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, Fianna Fáil Deputy Leader Darragh Calleary and SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood.
The initiative stems from letters sent to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar over the past 14 months, urging him to 'give voice' to concerns on issues including Brexit and the collapse of Stormont powersharing.