When the actor Jimmy Nesbitt gave a speech at the 'Ireland’s Future' event in Dublin on Saturday, his detractors’ criticism included the claim that celebrities and actors should stay away from politics.

Mind you, many of those watching Nesbitt star in the Sunday night BBC series 'Bloodlands' have suggested he might be better staying away from acting!

On a serious note, the reaction to Nesbitt and other Protestant speakers at the event says a lot about the nature of public discourse nowadays, and it would seem there is a real lack of proper engagement or listening to the point of view of everyone and making up one’s own mind.

Jimmy Nesbitt is a northern Protestant, brought up in Broughshane, Co. Antrim and in his youth played in a flute band. He was the keynote speaker at an event in Dublin organised by 'Ireland’s Future', a lobby group campaigning for a Border poll, and the reason he copped so much flak from Unionists is not so much what he said, but the fact that he was there at all.

'Ireland’s Future' has been conducting meetings across the island to have conversations about the viability of new constitutional arrangements on the island of Ireland, and the programme has engaged a wide cross-section of opinion, mainly Nationalist it has to be said.

The 'Together we can' event in Dublin, in the 3 Arena was attended by 5,000 people and over four hours there were various discussions which included a range of political parties north and south as well as civic society from trade unions, business, farming, Irish language interest and the National Women’s Council of Ireland.

Unionist parties refused an invitation to attend, as did the Alliance party.

Many Unionists, though, must’ve kept an eye on proceedings from a distance, with social media over the weekend full of mockery at the “low turnout”. The sneering came from high-profile loyalist and DUP sources, rather than engaging in the substantive issues around the issues.

I think it’s a legitimate position for Unionists to say that the nature of Saturday’s event wasn’t appropriate for them. Fine.

But the wider picture is that in the face of massive demographic change within Northern Ireland, as well as a changing relationship with a fracturing United Kingdom, political Unionism simply circles the wagons. Denial of reality or a co-ordinated attack on their opponents, they’re absenting themselves.

Nesbitt made the point that despite the politicians, conversations are taking place.

On Saturday there was some representation on stage from people from a Protestant or Unionist background, including the Rev. Karen Sethuraman, the only woman Baptist Minister in Ireland whose passion for reconciliation came through in a discussion alongside Ben Collins, a former Ulster Unionist who has written a new book 'Irish Unity, Time to Prepare'.

Two young men in their 20s from Belfast, Andrew Clarke and Peter Adair appeared in a video discussing how Brexit and the 2012 flag protests had made them rethink the beliefs they were brought up in, and they now see a United Ireland as more in tune with their feelings on progressive issues.

One wonders how many in their age group feel the same way but don’t feel they can put their head above the parapet because of the opprobrium from their 'own side'. Or worse, personal abuse.

It would seem that the old attitude among factions of loyalism still applies, you’re with us or against us, you’re loyal or Lundy.

Many of those in attendance were subjected to public jibes by politicians and commentators of being “gullible” or “useful idiots”. Indeed, they are accused of being weak when in actual fact they are having the courage of their convictions.

Nesbitt’s public profile ensured he got most of the digs; including one post of a picture of him in a Northern Ireland football jersey supporting the team with the message: “Spare us this from now on.” Apparently, you have to follow a certain political line to support Norn Iron.

Yet, some of the things Jimmy Nesbitt said were challenging for the audience, including a call to stop using language that is incendiary.

“I suppose to many from my background, talk of a united Ireland is difficult. But the conversation is out there,” he said. “I prefer something like a new Union of Ireland where people from the North, particularly from my tradition, would feel that they have their identity – that it is in no way threatened, that they have an equal voice, that they are part of a society that is progressive, inclusive, diverse.”

And, for the pedantic, who focus in on him saying “the North”, he also used the term Northern Ireland.

Nesbitt also raised his ongoing support for victims of the Troubles, for whom he has previously campaigned for a pension. And he specifically spoke about the 'Disappeared' at the conference; two days later, in support of the McVeigh family, he was at a new search for Columba McVeigh, shot dead almost 50 years ago.

As a patron of the Wave Trauma Centre, the victims and survivors group, Nesbitt has used his profile and his time to support victims and he also mentioned on Saturday a tribute to the late Jim Dornan, with whom he had worked on the Connected Citizens initiative.

And the actor also referenced the young students he met in his role as Chancellor of Ulster University, including supporting mental health initiatives.

So, Jimmy Nesbitt is no johnny-come-lately to contributing to a better society for all our people. Indeed, you can very strongly argue that he’s very much more in tune with grass roots civic society than many of his political detractors.

He was, therefore, a good choice to call for what he described as an informed debate about the kind of society we want, regardless of whatever the constitutional arrangements are. His speech was excellent and touched on many of the issues which need to be addressed honestly by all sides in debating the future. It’s worth a view on youtube if you want to make up your own mind.

More people are coming to the conclusion that decisions about the future will be based on practical issues rather than just remaining previous generations identity silos.

We don’t know exactly how representative those Protestants were on Saturday of that community; but the growing middle ground would seem to suggest that there is much thinking going on in that wider community.

Further to the refusal to countenance conversation about change and progression, worryingly there are elements within loyalism and unionism which wants to regress and adopt a 'dog in the manger' stance.

It is good that Dame Arlene Foster is leading efforts for a UK Together organisation to highlight the benefits of the Union.

I’m not sure if her job will have been made any easier by current circumstances, including talk by her former DUP colleagues of a “funeral” for the Good Friday Agreement and outright hostility to the House of Lords if they dare to vote against the Protocol bill.

Devolution is under threat from those Unionists; so what then? Direct Rule by Westminster which has betrayed Northern Ireland at every opportunity? Or worse still, a form of joint authority in a deal between Westminster and Dublin?

Seriously? At a time when people are crying out for help, the final collapse of the Assembly and leaving the governing of this place to Liz Truss is the best on offer to Unionists?

Be careful what you wish for.