Ireland and the Commonwealth

Sir, – On Easter Monday, 1949, Ireland left the Commonwealth and became the Republic of Ireland. So it cut its last constitutional link with Britain.

The event was met with fireworks, military parades and gun salutes, and there was a sense of joy and merriment throughout the country.

The confluence of these two events – becoming a republic and leaving the Commonwealth – has served to muddy the water, however, and led to a belief that being a member of the Commonwealth somehow compromises independence.

Nothing could be further from the truth: a country can be a republic and at the same time a member of the Commonwealth.


The recent announcement by a number of Caribbean countries that they wish to sever their links with the British monarchy and become republics does not necessarily cast into doubt their intention to remain constant members of the Commonwealth.

Moreover, Prince William’s announcement that he no longer expects to be head of the Commonwealth when he is king has discombobulated arguments that the head of the Commonwealth is necessarily “royal” so that membership somehow comprises cap-doffing to the British crown.

This development raises extraordinary possibilities.

What, for instance, if the head of the Commonwealth were to be a former president of Ireland?

For such an event to occur, of course, it would be necessary for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth.

I should lay my cards on the table and say that I have long advocated such a move for reasons I shall discuss.

But I must concede that whenever I raise the issue with my friends from South of the Border, they all say in effect that it would comprise “a backward step”.

What do they mean by this? Do they mean that they don’t want Ireland to lose its republican status? Or do they mean that they don’t want to be part of an international organisation that has few, if any, practical implications other than comity?

What does it cost to be a member of the Commonwealth other than a few plane tickets to the Commonwealth Conference every other year?

It doesn’t mean, for instance, that the crown has to be head of the nation, or that the Union Jack must be flown from the masthead, or even (now) that the head of the Commonwealth must be a member of the British royal family.

What it might mean, however, is that Northern unionists might see Ireland as a progressive nation that is prepared to make moderate concessions in pursuit of Irish unity. It would give some of them considerable comfort and might go a long way to giving the impression that the process of unity was not a one-way street.

When asked his opinion on Ireland’s new status, George Bernard Shaw stated, “Who am I that I should send messages to nations? I hope to know my place better.” With due respect to the literary genius, I hope that Ireland ignores this advice. It should stride on boldly to rejoin the Commonwealth and send a message to Northern unionists: “You are welcome here.”

This would require concessions all round, but it is in conceding that we discover what really matters. Peace and Irish unity? Rejoining the Commonwealth might bolster, rather than hinder, those.

Very much a forward, rather than a backward, step, I should think. – Yours, etc,