Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Uncommon Wealth

I think it was Brendan Behan who, in a moment of exasperation at his fellow country men, joked that 'we should give Ireland back to the English and apologise for all the trouble we've caused'. At least I think he was joking. Mind you, on the 'Super Tuesday' that's in it ...

But as a modest distraction from all the NAMA talk, and in the spirit of being an equal opportunity blog for speculative thinking about the future, what about the issue of Ireland re-joining the Commonwealth? It was floated recently in the Daily Telegraph (where else?), in light of a new Reform Group pamphlet entitled: Ireland and the Commonwealth - Towards Membership.

The Telegraph suggests an interesting sequence: the Queen of England visits Ireland in 2011 (the centenary of the last visit by an English monarch - George V - in 1911); then Ireland rejoins the Commonwealth in 2012 (having left in 1948); then the North's Unionists rejoin a united Ireland in 2021 (the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland). Okay, I made that last one up. Rather, Philip Johnston suggests that:
...were Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth, it would draw a line under the troubled history of Anglo-Irish relations and help develop a pluralist Ireland comfortable with its different identities and turbulent past. There is a strong argument, too, that Ireland's self-interest would also be served by being part of the Commonwealth, which is a world forum with links to many other institutions.
But this is where I think things come unstuck. Of course the Queen should visit Ireland as the sovereign head of our nearest neighbour: it's a pity she hasn't been able to do so sooner as it would indeed 'draw a line' under a lot of historical baggage. But I'm just not convinced that we have much to gain (nor contribute, frankly) to the future of the Commonwealth which seems, from the outside, to be increasingly about the developing nations that make up the majority of its members rather than the countries with which Ireland is historically connected (e.g.: Canada, Australia and New Zealand).

I do though agree with some of the views aired in the RTE What If? programme on 27th April 2008 which asked: What if Ireland had not left the Commonwealth in 1949? Including the view that we 'left too soon' when we did, and that it would have been better to leave in the 1970s when both Britain and Ireland joined the EEC thereby replacing the Commonwealth as a forum in which the two countries could do business.

On the other hand, if Ireland joining the Commonwealth were to be (part of) the price of a future united Ireland (with the consent of the majority in the North, and on the basis of making the Unionists more comfortable with same), then I would not object. Otherwise I just don't think we have enough in common with the Commonwealth to rejoin. Though on balance, now that I think about it, I'm fairly agnostic about the matter and am open to persuasion.

All this assuming, of course, that they'd have us back.


  1. I remember some comments of Garret Fitzgerald (perhaps on the anniversary of the Irish Republic in 2008), where he recounted the aftermath of John A. Costello's declaration of the republic. According to Garret, the UK government moved immediately to introduce a visa system for Irish immigrants to the UK. At a time of massive emigration, this would probably have collapsed the Irish economy or at the very least caused widespread poverty. After beating their chests and waving the flag by declaring a republic, Costello and his inter-party government had to go to the Canadians and the Australians and beg them to intervene on our behalf with the British government to maintain the common travel area between Ireland and Britain. Thanks to the kindness of our former Commonwealth partners in making those representations, the British reluctantly agreed to allow special preference to a country that had just declared itself a completely foreign state! The commonwealth is now an anachronism, but it would be hard to recreate the kind of stupidity in official circles in Dublin that led to our leaving it in the first place.

  2. Interestingly enough Hugh I once spoke to Garret about the whole 'rejoining the Commonwealth' issue. It was part of a wider conversation among a group of us, but his take was interesting (and amusing): maybe we should rejoin when the Americans rejoin!

    That said, I wouldn't want to claim the man came down on one side or the other as a result of our chat. Still, it's a thought ...

  3. I think the idea that the Unionists would be bought off by us joining the Commonwealth is daft. So all it would get us is participation in the Commonwealth Games: boring. Personally, I'm with Seamus Heaney: "Be advised, my passport's green / No glass of ours was ever raised / To toast the Queen."
    As it happens, I am living in a Commonwealth: Kentucky.

  4. It's not about buying Unionists off, but rather a gesture of goodwill. Too often the Republic is tarred as anti-British, which may have been true at one time but is hardly the case now. It is probably unfortunate that Ireland didn't wait a few more months for the London Declaration to take effect (which removed the link between the monarchy and Commonwealth membership).

    I don't think it is useful to compare Ireland with the US - they have been independent for over twice as long and have diverged significantly more from the Commonwealth countries.

    And it's not just the usual suspects of Canada, Oz and NZ that have Irish connections. Wandering around Singapore last week I was struck by the number of references.


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