Recently, the Dublin Fine Gael TD, Neale Richmond released a paper titled Towards a New Ireland which he will present at a talk at Sidney Sussex College, part of Cambridge University.
Despite the paper being 28 pages long (and can be read here
), there’s one main point proposed in the paper that has made the headlines and Twitter feeds chirp; that Ireland should, he feels, rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations.
In the paper, he writes:
Applying to join the Commonwealth of Nations would be a relatively simple way of ensuring a continuation of relations between British citizens in Northern Ireland and their previous connections.
Accession to the Commonwealth alone would certainly not convince Unionists to vote for a United Ireland, but nevertheless it has many merits. Such a move could be made in advance of a potential border poll as a gesture of goodwill as well as strategic acknowledgement [sic] of the potential benefits to Ireland in terms of diplomatic, trading and sporting opportunities as well as in the interests of reconciliation.
There would need to be an intense policy of education on what the Commonwealth is and does as the levels of ignorance and its perception as a continuing vassal of the British Empire is still prevalent.
Before I make my points about the above, I want to be clear about a few things first. The first is that regardless of differing party loyalties, I admire Neale Richmond and his stance on a few issues or topics, most notably gangland crime, Northern Ireland, and Brexit. He has an ability to cut through the spin and rhetoric seen from Eurosceptic forces in Britain or at home, and readiness to call them out as factual inconsistencies or downright lies. I equally respect Simon Coveney in his work as Foreign Affairs minister, especially during Brexit negotiations, and there are times when I’ve been (until now) silently content with the positions he and Richmond have made on North/South relations in Ireland, or Ireland-UK relations, including Brexit.
There are several times when he, as a Fine Gael TD, has voted in the Dáil on motions or issues that I would’ve voted differently if I had the same opportunity, but those are topics for another time. In general, though, I want to make clear that any criticism I have for the above is not due to party lines or government-versus-opposition divides.
An Overextension of Goodwill
The last was I that helped thee to the crown, The last was I that felt thy tyrrany O, in the battle think on Buckingham And die in terror of thy guiltiness.
~ Richard III, Act V, Scene III
Richmond is right when he writes in his introduction that we “must address and work towards understanding the fears held by many who are wary of a United Ireland; to demonstrate a willingness to show they are truly welcome.” In this sentiment, I fully agree.
What has caused so much attention, if not irritation, amongst the Irish in light of the news reports on his paper, is that joining an organisation or association of countries, the majority of which were once unified by being part of the British Empire, would do a massive disservice to those before us who fought hard to achieve the highest level of independence possible from London’s influence and power. This is not a sentiment expressed by our ancient forefathers (and foremothers), but one in very real living memory today.
While the Good Friday Agreement is now regarded as sacrosanct by the majority of people on this island, we have regularly seen since the start of the Brexit campaign trail that many British (and more often than not, specifically English) politicians, activists, and pundits knew little to nothing about Anglo-Irish history, colonisation, post-colonial Ireland and its relationship with Britain, the formation of Northern Ireland, its nuances, or our view of the North from the Republic.
It is why, time and again, the phrase “the Brits are at it again” is so well known, used, and understood in popular Irish culture, especially on social media. It is not out of derision or mocking, but an overfamiliar disappointment that our closest neighbour understands so little of us, and yet expects us to agree and rise to their assumptions of how events may unfold, often to their benefit over ours. It is why the Irish were so often referred to in conservative UK media as “awkward”, “pesky”, “troublesome” and our Taoiseach and Tánaiste (at the time) being referred to as “little Ireland’s ridiculous leaders”. All for wanting to maintain peace, freedom of movement, and an air of genuine attention from Westminister, for those in Northern Ireland.
Let me be very clear, however; whataboutery is an all-too-common practice in commentary about UK-Irish relations and/or Northern Ireland, and it is not a trap I wish to fall into here. It must be said, however, that even without bringing older (modern) history such as the Troubles into play, that Ireland and the UK had been in relative peaceful and good relations with one another since Good Friday and the Maastricht Treaty, and under the EU, the border on this island all but melted away.
Just as so many feared, Brexit has opened up old wounds between Ireland and Britain, and now, especially in light of recent unrest in the North, there are global and local eyes on us on these isles to return peace to our collective peoples. Ireland should and will certainly have a role to play in that, but the Commonwealth is neither the solution to that (something I know Neale understands, and he isn’t framing it as such a solution) nor should it even be proposed as an olive branch from Ireland to Britain or her Unionists in Ulster.
In short, while Ireland should certainly consider all options in establishing a renewed peace and friendship after the frictions of Brexit, and the resulting tensions in the North, there must remain a level of dignity and resolve by Ireland to go to a certain point and no further, and signal to Britain to address her past ignorances of her neighbour, and step up to the mark in honest and equal partnership.
A Healthy Divorce
If a man were to have multiple ex-wives, it’s highly unlikely (save for the odd comedy film) that they would all stay particularly friendly with one another, although civility would be possible.
This, however, is how I like to think of the Commonwealth of Nations; a collective of former concubines who have been convinced that while their relationship with Britain isn’t as close (read: possessive) as it had been in the past, they all now share a common experience and history. As such, independence comes with a wonderful support group of other former partners.
Of course, a support group can’t be too supportive or comforting when the perpetrator is in the room.
In 1949, Ireland made the historic decision to fully cut ties with the British Crown, and became a full republic, which meant we were no longer able to be part of the Commonwealth — something we arguably never wanted to be part of in the first place, as it was merely another hangover from our divorce settlement with Britain. With the newly-born Northern Ireland still in Britain’s custody, Ireland would be bound to (at least aim for) civil relations in the aftermath, with the help of extended family, America and Europe.
I’ve previously written
on how the EU provided a post-Troubles parity between Ireland and the UK for the North, to such an extent that Ireland was no longer green or orange, but European blue. That membership provided a common ground that people of all traditions on these islands could relate to and embrace. European identity in Northern Ireland had been embraced and recognised as far back as the poet John Hewitt, who recognised
it as yet another layer to himself, alongside being an Ulsterman, Irishman, and Briton.
The stripping of Europeanness, especially from Unionists, has been yet another unnecessary and divisive side-effect of Brexit, and Ireland’s membership of a post-colonial organisation will make no impact on that, regardless of Neale Richmond’s good intentions. Instead, it would represent returning to a toxic environment.
Richmond is also right when he stresses that we can not focus on redesigned flags or other symbols to provide a solution to any blockers facing a United Ireland. That said, while the European Union was both a symbolic ideal and practical organisation, the Commonwealth is nowhere near a suitable replacement or alternative.
Regardless of how its members now view Britain, colonialism, or any supposed benefits they enjoy, we in Ireland have established and maintained strong relations with major Commonwealth nations like Canada, Australia, and New Zealand without being part of it. In our preparation for a United Ireland and efforts to cater for a British-identifying community therein, we must ensure not to reduce our successes and dignity in the process, especially in any efforts to appease a former colonial power.