Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Time is right for debate on a return to Commonwealth

A good few years ago now, Sean Cantwell, the chief leader writer in the Irish Independent with whom I shared an office -- I was then the paper's literary editor -- asked me, would I mind if he said something personal? I said, not at all, thinking personal remarks were as good as any other kind and often better. He then regretted, on my behalf, my accent. "It might have been better if you spoke like Jack Charlton." I added: "It might also have helped if I had been a footballer!"

I have often thought of that encounter, not regretting it -- I am quite proud of my accent -- but I understood Sean Cantwell's view, that in the deeper backwoods of Irish political and religious culture, it was at times a trifle burdensome.

For the last half century, I have written always from within myself, my words reflecting views and beliefs. The views have always been Irish, concerned with the welfare of this country, whether political, artistic, moral or social. On the whole, they have been outspoken and challenging, which has to do with my nature.

The beliefs are rather different and reflect a position that has been unwavering. I am British, Protestant, and come from a dwindling and anachronistic class located somewhere between Kent, London and the Cotswolds. I have related something of the class I come from in my books, most notably in 'He That is Down Need Fear No Fall', published last year.

Despite these introductory words, this article tries to come to terms with a couple of recent events: firstly, the recent terrorist killings in Northern Ireland which struck a new chord in North-South relations, in Anglo-Irish relations, perhaps also in the relationships between two communities in the North and between the ragged remnants of those two points of view in the south.

Well before the killings, moves were afoot in the south to bring up an issue that has already attracted considerable interest and to hold a public debate -- on whether is it time to reconsider the country's membership of the Commonwealth.

Ireland is approaching the 60th anniversary of the declaration of the Republic. This was in the mind of the main organiser of the debate, Robin Bury, of the Reform Movement. I was patron of this organisation for a number of years and have had a long association with its founding figure. We share a deep concern for the Protestants in the south, on which Robin Bury is writing a book, his thesis based on the idea that the Protestant community in the Republic went under, was pacified, in the sense of separate identity, and then deracinated.

I do not agree with this. Small it may be, as a practising community, but it has never gone under.

Another of the interests Robin Bury has is a liking for the Commonwealth and a belief in Ireland's return to membership. Martin Mansergh, Minister of State at the Department of Finance with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works, will debate this question a week from today.

Another speaker is Amitav Banerji, director of the political affairs division of the Commonwealth Secretariat in London, who was urged to attend by Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma. Priscilla Jana, South Africa's ambassador to Ireland, and John Waters of the 'Irish Times', will also speak. Roy Garland, a peace activist and a 'Irish News' columnist, will chair the event.

Martin Mansergh's presence is important on two grounds. Though only recently elected to the Dail, he has been consistently involved in Fianna Fail politics, firstly as a political adviser to Charles Haughey, particularly on Northern Ireland, and later as adviser to Albert Reynolds and Bertie Ahern. With his earlier experience in the Department of Foreign Affairs, he is uniquely placed to speak on the subject.

He will be giving an analysis, no doubt drawing certain sympathies and understandings derived from his father, Nicholas Mansergh, a distinguished historian with a lifelong interest in the British Commonwealth -- his first book, published in 1934, 'The Irish Free State: Its Government and Politics'. Mansergh Sr wrote of the Commonwealth:

'For my generation, the Commonwealth had much in common with the Common Market nowadays. I was interested in the Commonwealth to see if it would provide a way forward in Ireland itself. An inherent weakness in the Anglo-Irish Treaty was that the Dominion settlement was not consistent with Partition. I felt that Dominion status wouldn't work, which was obvious enough by 1934, but I wasn't sure whether any alternative to Dominion status would work in Ireland's case."

Martin Mansergh still sees this as an emotive issue and possibly divisive. For many, it would be coloured by views on a united Ireland, though he wouldn't be an advocate, but he will be contributing to a better understanding of the issues.

To have Amitav Banerji present as well is an added bonus since it will add emphasis to the good analogies between Europe and Commonwealth countries. In addition, there are the Commonwealth commitment to democracy and good governance, human rights and the rule of law, gender equality and sustainable economic and social development.

When Ireland left the Commonwealth in 1949, the other member states hoped that its departure would be temporary since, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Irish Free State had played a crucial role in the transformation of the British Commonwealth into an association of free, democratic and sovereign states. Since then, it stopped being the 'British' Commonwealth and the monarch as its head is only symbolic.

Robin Bury, of the Reform Movement, has said: "Membership of the Commonwealth is more relevant than ever." He cites the economic crisis as one of the reasons. "The country is going to need all the friends and connections it can get in the perilous economic times that lie ahead.

"Ireland's membership of the Commonwealth would be welcomed by the unionist community in Northern Ireland as significant gesture of reconciliation . . . It would demonstrate unequivocally that the Republic has finally drawn a line under the troubled history of Anglo-Irish relations [and] would represent a further important step along the road to a pluralist Ireland."

Perhaps, indeed, we should rethink our position.