Why Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth

Conn Corrigan
9 January 2008

The biggest mistake Irish republicans ever made says former Irish rugby star Trevor Ringland, was that "they never asked." Ringland, the sports spokesman for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), likes saying this to his southern Irish friends to explain unionist objections to a united Ireland. And worse than not asking, Ringland says, is that the "only method used to persuade unionists of the benefits of a united Ireland was violence."

Northern Ireland, despite enjoying almost a decade of relative peace, remains a fractured society, and Ringland, as chairman of the One Small Step Campaign (a cross community organisation that tries to integrate the two communities) is doing more than his bit to correct this. The point he makes, I believe, neatly encapsulates the two major flaws in Irish republicanism: the assumption that unionism could not be a deeply held belief, and the connected assumption that Northern Protestants could be forced into a united Ireland through the barrel of a gun.

The first draft of the 1987 Sinn Féin policy document Scenario for Peace betrays the former flaw. While assuring Protestants that their rights would be protected in a united Ireland, Sinn Féin kindly offered to give grants to any Protestant who wished to be repatriated to Britain. The presumption was that the day a united Ireland arrived unionists would either snap out of their false consciousness and realise that they have been Irish all along, or have to go back to where they came from.

This republican view, strongly streaked in socialism, was that the British were using Protestants as a ‘pretext' to remain in Northern Ireland. But with the end of the Cold War, the IRA's self-image - an anti-imperialist organisation involved in a war of liberation against a colonial power - became increasingly impossible to sustain. Republicans soon realised that partition existed not because of British interests, but because of unionists' desire to remain part of the United Kingdom. "In a way," said Sinn Féin strategist Tom Hartley, "we made them a non-people...We didn't even see them as part of the problem, never mind as being part of the solution."

The use of violence, as Trevor Ringland points out, was one very obvious way in which republicans made the possibility of a united Ireland all the more unlikely. But republicans did further damage to their cause by the way in which they set out their vision of what a united Ireland would look like: Catholic, Gaelic and monolithic. Unionists could argue, with considerable justification, that their British culture, their British identity, would be obliterated in a country like this.

The principle of consent

But with the Good Friday Agreement and the enshrinement of the principle of consent - in which there can be no constitutional change unless a majority wants one - obvious weaknesses in Irish republican political theory have been corrected. Having moved on from fantasies of repatriating Protestants, Gerry Adams now acknowledges as much: "I don't think we can force on unionism an all-Ireland state that doesn't have their assent or consent and doesn't reflect their sense of being comfortable." Republicanism has effectively abandoned what it once regarded as the fundamentals of the conflict - a British declaration of intent to withdraw within the lifetime of Parliament and a British declaration of the right of the Irish people to self-determination as a national unit - and has accepted partition. But accepting partition and renouncing violence don't mean giving up on a united Ireland. This acceptance is liberating in that it enables republicans to set out more clearly the case for a united Ireland, and to present an inclusive vision of what this might look like.

The challenge for republicans is to convince enough unionists that their interests can be accommodated in a united Ireland, so that a majority of Northern Ireland's people are in favour of a constitutional change. Unionists must be wooed by republicans and challenged through the force of intellectual argument. As such, the restoration of Stormont and the power-sharing arrangement of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin provides the latter with an opportunity to demonstrate to unionism its fitness for government.

The approach of the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next year provides an opportunity for republicans to take stock of how much progress they have actually made on this front. Have they come any closer to persuading unionists that a united Ireland would be in everyone's interest in Northern Ireland? It might be instructive to look at some of the old arguments unionists used against a united Ireland, and see how they stack up today.

No longer the land of Rome Rule

The good news for republicans is that three of these arguments - that the republic is a Catholic state, that it is backward and undeveloped, and that it celebrates only a singular form of Irishness - no longer really apply.

Unionists, in the past, could say that a united Ireland would condemn them to living under "Rome Rule". Every student of Irish history has heard that famous quote from James Craig, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, who said "All I boast is that we are a Protestant Parliament and Protestant State." Perhaps less well-known is the fact that this was preceded by: "The Hon. Member must remember that in the South they boasted of a Catholic State. They still boast of Southern Ireland being a Catholic State." This is clearly no longer the case.

The position of the Catholic Church in Ireland - which, up until 1972 was acknowledged as "special" in the Irish constitution - has weakened dramatically in the new republic. Arthur Aughey, a distinguished unionist political scientist, once wrote that the republic is committed to the "construction of homogenous, confessional political order." This was a dubious statement to make even in 1989, and is obviously dated now. Economic success has been accompanied by a good dose of secularism, meaning unionists can no longer argue against unification on the grounds that they would be condemned to living in a Catholic clerical tyranny.

The second unionist argument against a united Ireland - backwardness - is in a sense closely related to the first: the republic was considered backward precisely because of its Catholicism. There was always a supremacist element to this connection, perhaps best illustrated by Ian Paisley, who once said "Our ancestors cut a civilisation out of the bogs and meadows while Mr Haughey's ancestors were wearing pig skins and living in caves." But there may also have been more than a germ of truth this claim: Tom Garvin, a University College Dublin academic, has argued that post-Independence Ireland was poor for so long in no small part because of the Church's conservatism, which wanted Ireland to remain a "rural, neo-Gaelic, Catholic Arcadia". In the decade that Paisley made the above remarks, Ireland was an economic disaster.

But that was the 1980s. In 1987, the Economist described Ireland as the "basket case of Europe": the same magazine's 2005 world quality of life index placed Ireland at the top, 28 places ahead of the UK. More recently, the 2007 UN human development index ranked Ireland in fifth place, placing the UK in sixteenth place.

Northern Ireland and the republic have undergone a role reversal in attitudes to each other's economies: now it is the turn of cosmopolitan southerners to look down at their northern, state-handout addicted cousins. Years ago, travellers from the south would know they had crossed the border when the roads suddenly ceased to be peppered with potholes, such was the poor state of the Republic's road infrastructure. In January of this year, by contrast, the Irish government announced details of a £800 million investment plan into Northern Ireland's infrastructure, mostly on roads.

Disdain for the South's economic condition often mixed with a feeling that the Republic was based on a very narrow, specific and insular form of Irishness. Former UUP leader David Trimble made such an accusation in 2002, when he contrasted the UK's "vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-national liberal democracy" with "the pathetic sectarian, mono-ethnic, mono-cultural State to our south". He later told an American newspaper, "If you took away Catholicism and anti-Britishness, the state [the Irish Republic] doesn't have a reason to exist."

Presumably then Mr. Trimble would welcome the disappearance of the republic's mono-ethnicity and mono-culture: the most recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show that over 12 percent of the population is foreign born, as is 14 percent of the workforce. "This would rank as one highest percentage of non-nationals in a labour force in Western Europe," said the Irish jobs agency, FÁS, in its most recent employment bulletin. This experience of immigration into Ireland is important, in that it can demonstrate to unionism that the former monolithic and homogenous Irish society is capable of adapting and accommodating different cultures and peoples.

And never has this adaption been demonstrated more vividly than it was last February at Croke Park, the Dublin Headquarters of the Gaelic Athletic Association and one of the great institutions of Irish life. In the past unionism could, with some degree of justification, cite the GAA's brand of cultural nationalism as further evidence of what would follow in a united Ireland: the DUP MP Sammy Wilson once described the GAA as "the IRA at play". But, in February, God Save the Queen was heard there for the first time when Ireland took on England in the Six-Nations: not only a big moment in Irish sport, but a big moment in Irish history.

The success of that game - made all the sweeter by the fact that Ireland won 43-13 - went some way to undo the damage done during Dublin's Love Ulster riots in February 2006, which, from this distance, are beginning to look more and more like an aberration than part of any deeper, underlying trend. The fact that it was played at Croke Park showed that most Irish people are not so insecure about their identity and culture that they feel threatened by Britishness, and demonstrates Ireland's desire to finally kick its old Anglophobia addiction.

Why Republicans need the commonwealth

The Republic of Ireland has come along way towards being somewhere which unionists might be willing to live. But there is obviously a lot more to do. All political parties in the south are ostensibly committed to a united Ireland (with perhaps the exception of the Green Party). But they all need to be more creative in the way in which they try to persuade unionists to come around to their way of thinking. I would make one suggestion: Republicans should call for Ireland to rejoin the commonwealth.

I admit, for many Irish republicans this idea will raise nothing more than a few chuckles; it may have others reaching for a bucket. But they should give it serious consideration. The process by which enough unionists will come around to the idea of united Ireland will not happen overnight - a united Ireland by 2016 is beginning to look more and more like a republican fantasy. And it certainly will not happen if republicans aren't proactive.

In a seminal article on Ulster unionism, UCD academic Jennifer Todd identified two traditions in unionist political culture: Ulster loyalists and Ulster British. In loyalist ideology, Todd argued, the primary imagined community is Northern Protestants, who have a secondary identification with Britain. For Ulster British, the imagined community is Greater Britain, with a secondary regional identification with Northern Ireland. For some of this second group, the point of the union with Great Britain is not an end of itself. It is for civic reasons: as Norman Porter put it in his book, Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Ulster, the union exists because of "the quality of social and political life" that it brings to Northern Ireland.

There is no reason why this group cannot be persuaded of the social and economic benefits that would come with a united Ireland, but they would need to be convinced that their Britishness would be assured in a united Ireland. The very notion of Britishness - an identity that belongs to no one nation - is compatible with this. For many people, for example, being Scottish is a particular way of being British. What is interesting about the Ulster British is that, whereas the Scottish are, perhaps, losing the ‘British' part of their identity, the Ulster British have largely lost the ‘Irish' part of theirs. During the Troubles, when people were being killed simply because they were British, and when Irishness was defined in such explicit non-British, Catholic and Gaelic terms, it is little wonder that many (but by no means all) British in Northern Ireland rejected the term "Irish" in their self-descriptions.

For unionists to be convinced that they should join a united Ireland, they need to be assured that the south is no longer anti-British. Joining the commonwealth would be an important way of symbolising this.

This idea is not as unrealistic as it might seem. An Irish organisation, Reform has already made such a suggestion (though it is very much of the view that Northern Ireland's current constitutional status should be preserved: its members include neo-unionists such as Ruth Dudley Edwards, who has written a very sympathetic and, at times sentimental, account of the Orange Order).

In 1998, Fianna Fáil TD (MP) Eamon O'Cuiv, the grandson of Eamon De Valera, said that while he was a "committed republican" he would see no problem with rejoining the commonwealth if it would reach out to unionists.

In April 2006, Jeffrey Donaldson also said: "We have made clear we would like to see a deepening and strengthening of the east-west frameworks. We would like to see the Irish Republic join the Commonwealth." In May, during a debate on the Northern Ireland Assembly's reapplication to membership of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Donaldson and Alliance Party's MLA Sean Neeson both said that they thought it would be a good idea for the republic to rejoin the commonwealth. Sinn Féin's Mitchel McLaughlin also said, interestingly, that "while this is not, as you would understand, a primary matter of interest for us, neither should we create any obstacles to those who feel it reflects their particular cultural, political and social affinity."

Support for this idea also emanates from outside Ireland: in May, the secretary general of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) Dr William Shija, called for Ireland to rejoin the commonwealth, 58 years after it had left. And in July, Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay told the House of Commons that it was time to issue an invitation to Ireland to rejoin so as to "take its natural place" in the commonwealth.

This would not be a surrender to an imperial past. It would not mean that the Queen would be the head of state, which is the case only for the 16 states of the commonwealth realm. There are 54 countries in the commonwealth, 33 of which are republics, and many of which, like Ireland, had to fight for their independence. Instead, it would be a gesture - that a Northern Unionist identity could survive - even flourish - as part of a united Ireland.

There is no reason why today, with the redefinition of what it means to be Irish, Irishness shouldn't be absolutely compatible with being British. And for republicans to ever succeed, the two cannot be considered mutually exclusive concepts. Were Ireland to rejoin the commonwealth, it would send out a message to Northern Protestants not simply that their Britishness would be tolerated (which implies a kind of reluctant acceptance) - but would be actively promoted in a united Ireland. Which is why Gerry Adams and Co. should be reaching for the commonwealth application forms.

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