Bruce Arnold

Chief Critic of the Irish Independent, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

We should all be celebrating Commonwealth Day

Robin Bury is having a hard time persuading Irish people to attend, let alone celebrate Commonwealth Day on Monday, March 11.

No members of the Government – who fell over themselves a year ago in their enthusiasm to touch hands with Queen Elizabeth, who is head of the Commonwealth – want to go.

They should attend, for a special reason this year – the event will be addressed by Mary Kenny. Mary is a wise woman, shrewd yet kind, with a lifetime's experience of dealing with the perennial problems of mixed loyalties. She has written, better than anyone else I know, on the subject at the heart of the Commonwealth problem – Queen Elizabeth.

This was in her book, 'Crown and Shamrock: Love and Hate between Ireland and the British Monarchy'. And what she has to say on March 11 in the Royal Irish Academy will be rich in content and judgment.

On an almost daily basis, Bury, the secretary general of the Commonwealth, communicates to me the negative reaction he is facing among politicians and opinion-formers, though the capacity of the latter to form opinions is notable for its absence.

An exception is David McWilliams, who recently wrote of four Cork lads in a cafe in London, part of "the newest wave of Irish people whom London has welcomed and provided with a living, when earning a living back home is not possible". He pointed out what most Irish families know that "there are more British people with one Irish grandparent than there are Irish people with grandparents".

While we achingly celebrate James Joyce, it was different when he was alive. He was a determined British citizen who came 'home' for the last unhappy time in 1912 and abjured his own country, favouring London when he married.

Yet he loved Ireland and wrote movingly and perceptively about it. Virtually all major Irish writers became 'English' by choice or adoption. Artists did the same, a gallery full of them following Victor Waddington to London when he left Dublin having lost a fortune trying to persuade Irish people to buy pictures. When this trend involving artistic reliance on Britain died down, writers such as Sean O Faolain and Frank O'Connor, Padraic Colum and Ben Kiely turned to America.

Britain, says McWilliams, will remain the natural home for Irish products, investment and people. The youngest working part of our population is the new expatriate generation to fill jobs and cafes, theatres and stadiums in Commonwealth states such as Canada and Australia, so we do have good relations with member countries.

When young job-seekers do the same in America it is like an extension of the Commonwealth idea since, for well over a century, that country has held firmly to "a special relationship" with Britain based on a common language and geographical propinquity. This is far better managed than our own self-image, which is still plugged full of anglophobia, lack of confidence and an emphasis on historical slights.

Commonwealth membership is different, though it still does make political, social and economic sense for Ireland.

The presence of so much unwillingness to see obvious advantages bodes ill for the future of the Irish people in my view.

We overlook an enormous amount. Britain funded a fifth of our bailout debt by injecting cash into our economy between 2009 and 2011, and added more last year.

As McWilliams has recently pointed out, some 9.8 million people flew between the Republic and Britain in 2011. This is just under 186,000 a week. Contrast this figure with the overall traffic of Germans coming here per year, which is 400,000, fewer than 8,000 a week.

Why do so many go to Britain? They go to work, to trade, to see their extended families, to mind their properties and financial interests and perhaps to breathe the free air of a country with more Irish trading and other relationships than we have with any other race.

I will listen with keen attention to what my long-standing friend, Mary Kenny, has to say when she speaks in the Royal Irish Academy on Commonwealth Day in two weeks' time.