Why Ireland should not join the Commonwealth

Not a well-thought-out idea

There are from time to time suggestions that Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth. The most recent comes from Judge Richard Humphreys, in an opinion piece in the Irish Times. These suggestions may be done with good intentions but the idea needs to be teased out and combed to better understand what it would imply.

1. The people who usually promote this idea are unionists or people who regret that Ireland left the United Kingdom. I am thinking in particular of the “Reform Group” (they wish to reform the old United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland). They yearn for some political connection between Ireland and the UK. They often dress up their suggestion as a way for better relations between Ireland and Britain, but once you scratch the surface, it becomes clear that they are really crypto-unionists who would prefer if Ireland was still ruled by Britain.

Here is a message from a supporter of Ireland being in the Commonwealth on the Facebook page of the Reform Group. It provides an indication of the mindset and ambitions of its followers:

Yes quite frankly it (Ireland) could even become a Commonwealth Realm and later on apart (sic) of the UK. It’s quite clear to me how to acheive (sic) it but it’ll take a while to implement. The majority of the British Isles are Unionist and these very people have the freedom to live, study and work anywhere in the UK or the ROI. Along with our Isles having a majority Unionist population, the UK is one of if not the greatest soft power. Subversion is also key.”

2. The advocates for joining the Commonwealth do not complain that Ireland needs to be more active in international affairs and that Ireland should be a member of NATO, the Schengen zone, the International Energy Agency, the Association of Small Island States, etc. No, they have a very specific objective which is that Ireland should be part of one international organization in particular, the Commonwealth. This is an indication that the desire is not to be more active in international organizations but to be more closely associated with Britain.

3. One does not hear the advocates of the Commonwealth wishing for every state in the world to be part of the Commonwealth. If it is such a good organization to be part of, then logically one would expect them to seek countries like Paraguay, Albania, Uzbekistan, and many more to become members.

4. It seems that the main basis for wishing for Ireland to join the Commonwealth is because the Irish state was once part of the Commonwealth. Logically then, other states that were once ruled by Britain should also be encouraged to join the Commonwealth. One never hears a demand from the supporters of Irish membership of the Commonwealth for the United States of America, Egypt, Israel and Palestine, etc. to join it. Yet for some reason, there is a persistent demand that Ireland should be part of the Commonwealth. Surely if the Commonwealth was such a wonderful international organization, its advocates would desire every country, particularly countries once ruled by Britain, to be members.

5. Those advocating Irish membership of the Commonwealth as an action to acknowledge the British identity of unionists in Ireland claim that the organization has changed since the time Ireland ceased being a member and that it is no longer a British organization. Mention is made of it being no longer called the British Commonwealth and that most of the member states are republics. If that is the case, why then would Irish membership be useful to recognize the British identity of people in Ireland? If there is nothing British about the Commonwealth, it would be an empty and useless gesture. It would no more be a nod to British identity than being a member of the International Energy Agency would be. The reason that those who urge Irish membership of the Commonwealth in order to acknowledge those in Ireland with a British identity is because the Commonwealth is associated with Britishness. The Commonwealth is a looser version or an echo of the British Empire. The British monarch is the head of the Commonwealth and the UK government has a department called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is very much British.

6. The litmus test for Ireland to join the Commonwealth would be that Irish membership would be reciprocated in a positive way by unionists. If Ireland were to join the Commonwealth and unionists do not change their feelings and opinions about the Irish state, then it would be a waste with no benefit in return. The justification for Irish membership of the Commonwealth seems to be that it would be important for unionists. History shows us that from the moment that Northern Ireland and the Irish state were established in 1922 unionists not only had no interest in the Irish state but were hostile to it. Unionists did not care less that Ireland was in the British Empire and later the Commonwealth. They despised the Irish state. So what would be the point of Ireland making a gesture to unionists which would not be reciprocated? Such a big step for Ireland should only be done if the unionists become more willing to respect the Irish state and accept an Irish role in their lives.

7. People who suggest Irish membership of the Commonwealth as a way to better relations between Ireland and Britain seem to forget that the Commonwealth is a global organization. What does Ireland share in common with Jamaica, Pakistan or Papua New Guinea? Little or nothing.
The Commonwealth is too large and cumbersome an organization for Irish-British relations. It lacks the focus on these relations that the British-Irish Council has which is a much better structure. Would unionists be interested in a language exchange between Ireland and Papua New Guinea? We don’t need to beat around the bush here. They wouldn’t. Unionists are interested in political, economic and cultural links with Britain, not states on the other side of the world that nobody in Ireland has any connection to.

8. The real way to improve Irish-British relations is to focus on Scotland. Most unionists feel an affinity with Scotland. The real Irish-British axis is not east-west (England-Ireland) but south-west – north-east (Ireland-Scotland). Scotland is Ireland’s nearest neighbour and there is a cultural continuum from the south-west of Ireland to the north-east of Scotland (the Shetland and Orkney island excluded as they have a Viking heritage). By focusing on and strengthening the connections between Ireland and Scotland, with Northern Ireland in the middle, Irish (unionists and nationalists) and Scottish people will find a common ground with an easy appreciation for a shared culture. There are many similarities between Ireland and Scotland and links that go back thousands of years.

Developing this Irish-Scottish axis is not a threat to Irish identity or political sovereignty. There would be no need to become part of an international organization that lacks the focus required for developing relations between Ireland and Britain. It would be a win-win situation for unionists and nationalists as well as for Scottish people. Unionists would appreciate the deepening of relations with their neighbours across the water, home of many of their ancestors. Nationalists would also win as it would be a way for Ireland to engage closely with British life without feeling that there has to be a price in terms of being politically associated with Britain.

No doubt the campaign for Irish membership of the Commonwealth will rumble on quietly over the next few decades but its advocates have to realize that there are deep flaws in their ideas and there are better ways for Ireland to be connected to Britain without having to join the Commonwealth. The USA and the UK are special partners but the former is not nor ever was a member of the Commonwealth. Its lack of membership did not stop the USA developing incredibly strong ties with the UK.

Once the UK leaves the European Union, things will rapidly change. No one knows yet what the future relations between Britain and all of its neighbours will be but there will be opportunities for new types of relationships. Scotland might become independent if Brexit goes horribly wrong. This is when the Irish-Scottish axis will become more important.