Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Ireland and the Commonwealth

A wise mandarin at the FCO once cautioned me that if came to foreign countries encouraging Ireland to join the Commonwealth it would be best done alphabetically. Countries such as Australia, India and Mozambique would have more sway than Ireland’s nearest neighbour.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I was perhaps premature in proposing this but the widely acknowledged success of the Queen’s visit to Ireland opens up the possibility.

Many Irish people have seen the Commonwealth as associated with imperial power and pomp. But times have long changed. The Commonwealth is a very different institution from when Ireland left in 1948.

At worst, the Commonwealth might be a talking shop. It is best known for its athletic games but it also aims to promote democracy, economic development and international understanding. Membership pays dividends and costs little.

It has been reshaped by countries which struggled for freedom from colonialism and now value their independence. The Commonwealth is a free association of 54 sovereign states. It is a rich mosaic of the modern world. It combines black and white, Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, Muslim, left and right, east and west, north and south, rich and poor as well as a range of political systems. From Antigua to Zimbabwe, Jamaica to South Africa, Cyprus to Pakistan, the Commonwealth has a foot in every continent.

The Commonwealth contains republics and monarchies. Queen Elizabeth is head of state in 16 countries, while five countries with their own monarchies and 33 republics don’t give her any constitutional recognition. However, they all recognise her as a symbol of their free association and she is head of the Commonwealth.

They nearly all have a shared relationship with Britain except for Mozambique and Cameroon. Few countries have the depth of shared relationships as Ireland.

Rejoining the Commonwealth could connect the Republic to friendly countries around the world, increase its diplomatic punch and trading opportunities, without surrendering republican principles or compromising Irish independence.

Rejoining could also reassure northern unionists who fear that their British identity is ignored in the Republic and might be further ignored as the two parts of the island draw together.

The Commonwealth is seeking to make itself relevant as a values-based association to its times and people. Irish membership would be a big boost.

The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is meeting today in Cork. Joe McHugh TD, its new Irish Co-Chairperson rightly says that ‘The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly must build on the symbolism of Queen Elizabeth II’s recent visit to Ireland to develop real and practical commercial measures that will drive economic growth in Britain and Ireland.’

Deputy McHugh promises to use this new position ‘to meaningfully harness the goodwill that the Royal visit has generated. Britain and Ireland must work very closely together at commercial and trade levels to overcome the severe economic difficulties facing our countries.’

He adds that ‘Cross-community and cross-channel links offer Britain and Ireland a route out of recession, and I will be focused as Co-Chairperson on ensuring that the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is a worthwhile vehicle for driving this agenda.’

As one who has attended many meetings of the BIPA and seen at firsthand how it has helped make Anglo-Irish relations very close I would endorse that but suggest that the it would be logical for both Britain and Ireland to join with so many others in the Commonwealth too.



Photo: Kevin Harber

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Gary Kent

is director of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity. He tweets @GaryKent


  • The only thing Ireland would have in common with any of those countries is we were all ruled and pillaged by the British Empire. In the case of Ireland, the horror went a little longer and deeper. No amount of modern-day revisionism can wipe away the centuries of butchery. Now you want us to join your commonwealth? Forget the past, we’re constantly told. Em, no. No I won’t.

  • ‘Others have a nationality. The Irish and the Jews have a psychosis.’ Brendan Behan. The Soviet Union lost 26 million dead and got on with it – No pleading for special treatment, allowances, tax breaks, bailouts or whatever. But some love to wallow.

  • Irish nationalists might stop to pause and remind themselves that the island has over 1 million Protestants who are already members of the Commonwealth through the UK. Gestures of reconciliation go both ways. Joining the Commonwealth would have no downside of any significance, but would say a lot about how far the Republic has come in terms of accepting the reality that the island has more than one tradition that can be celebrated by all.

  • At the end of the day, most Irish people don’t want Ireland to join the Commonwealth simply because they don’t feel attached to it or because they don’t like what it represents. We left the Commonwealth in 1948 for a reason and the issue of re-joining is pretty dead to us. It seems like the British are the ones who are living in the past.

Sign up to our daily roundup email