By Gareth Foynes
Another year, another call for Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth of Nations. However, this year there is a twist. Or perhaps the twist has existed for the last couple of years. I’m talking of course about Brexit. That said, the arguments against Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth of Nations are just as real - Brexit or no Brexit. And the Irish people (in general) continue to dismiss the notion of rejoining the commonwealth.
The arguments against Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth are just as real today as they were in the 90s. Those who propose Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth argue that it would help British and Irish relations and that it would duly facilitate those on the island of Ireland to have their British identity to be recognised. At the same time, they argue that the Commonwealth is no longer named the ‘British Commonwealth’. The Commonwealth is “not the British Commonwealth, it is a community of equal nations,” says Chief Anyaoku. Does this not defeat the whole purpose of the identity of those on the island of Ireland to have their British identity recognised? Moreover, it does little to improve British and Irish relations – it offers nothing new for the already strong existing relationship or what the British-Irish council can offer.
The contemporary literature seems to presume that Unionists would only be more than happy to welcome Ireland into the Commonwealth. Unionists were indifferent to Ireland’s involvement in the Commonwealth previously. Unionists are simply not willing to accept any form of an Irish role in their lives. Moreover, many believe that the introduction of Ireland into the Commonwealth will cause unnecessary religious tensions with other Commonwealth nations. Over three quarters of the Commonwealth are either Hindu or Muslim; and many have stressed concern over how Irish delegates might deal with this.
Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth remains unrealistic and unworkable despite major changes in the European political landscape.
Some have argued that Ireland would benefit from the extra countries it could connect with within the Commonwealth for trading and diplomatic purposes. However, countries like Jamaica and Pakistan are of little relevance or use to Ireland in this regard. Moreover, Ireland would benefit much more from joining NATO or the International Energy Agency. Unlike the Commonwealth, these organisations actually have a purpose. Professor Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, says this has been an ongoing problem for the organisation: ‘The Commonwealth has never had a very clear purpose, it’s assumed certain purposes at particular times. In the 60s, 70s and 80s it was very much focused on anti-racism and battling apartheid in South Africa, and really completing the process of decolonisation.’
The Commonwealth Games also presents major issues despite being touted as an attractor for Ireland. What will materialise is more debate about whether the island of Ireland should compete as a whole or North and South as separate competing territories. If it is the former then this only raises further issues as to what anthem should be played before competitions.
Some have even called for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth as a means quelling the violence that Unionists may instigate as a result. It cannot be refuted that this would inevitably instigate further violence from paramilitaries. The island rejoining the Commonwealth would be a mere tokenistic consolation for Unionists anyway. The potential trade-off and what could ensue is far too grim.
There are also viable alternatives to joining the Commonwealth to strengthen relations across the Irish sea. Many have argued that we should hone in on the already existing relationship with Scotland. Both Nationalists and Unionists have a great affinity with Scotland. Both Unionists and Nationalists can find common ground that is predicated upon their historic links with Scotland. Moreover, there is one big advantage this strategy over rejoining the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth has been taken over by the Royal family. Professor Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London has stated: ‘In terms of popular perception nowadays, and the Commonwealth secretariat knows this, the only way you’re only going to get media attention for the Commonwealth is if it’s a story linked to the Queen or Prince Charles or Meghan or Harry. Certainly the way that it has been used in the Brexit debate by the right-wing in Britain has the certain kind of nostalgic whiff of going back to old Commonwealth friends, ie the Empire. It’s not helpful for the Commonwealth’s attempts to define itself as a post-imperial international organisation.’ This makes the fostering of a relationship with Scotland even more appealing to Ireland.
But let’s be frank for a minute here: most people who are strongly suggesting that Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth would simply rather Ireland be under the thumb of Britain. It is disguised as harnessing better relations when in reality, there are some strong ulterior motives. There is no desire to express that Ireland should be involved more in international organisations – just the Commonwealth. Moreover, they express no such strong desires for other nations to join the Commonwealth – just Ireland. The latter is no mere coincidence.
It follows that Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth remains unrealistic and unworkable despite major changes in the European political landscape. The Unionists who feel they are losing touch with Britain may feel alienated in Ireland but they can’t have their cake and eat it too.
Originally published 28.11.19 in Vol. 3 No. 1.