Sunday 20 October 2019

Ireland out in the cold over Britain's monarchy debate

There have been some suggestions in recent weeks about Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth -- 60 years after Mr Costello's inter-party government stormed out of what was then the British Commonwealth, in 1949.

The Commonwealth is no longer called 'British', and republics -- such as India -- are now freely admitted; so certain Irish academics and notables (writing from the Department of History at University College, Cork, though not endorsed officially by UCC) have put forward the idea that it could be in Irish interests to be part of this international club once again.

Maybe: or maybe not. I cannot see it happening -- a national debate on the Commonwealth question might reopen too many old wounds. But there is one issue which has just arisen in which Ireland certainly should have a 'Commonwealth' voice.

That issue refers to Gordon Brown's constitutional proposal to remove the ban on Roman Catholics acceding to the British throne, or indeed, marrying anyone in line to the throne.

It is still part of the Act of Settlement of 1701 that "no British prince" may marry a Roman Catholic and keep his entitlement of succession. Any member of the British royal family who marries a papist must renounce his succession, as did Prince Michael of Kent -- his father was King George VI's younger brother -- when he married the Austrian Marie-Christine von Reibnitz in 1978.

More recently, Lord Nicholas Windsor, son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, was received into the Catholic Church in 2001, and was obliged to renounce formally his succession entitlements to the throne. In 2006, he became the first member of the British Royal Family to be married at the Vatican.

As it happens, Nicholas's mother, Katharine, is also a Catholic convert; she has no claim to the throne, but she is, piquantly, a collateral descendent of Oliver Cromwell. (The duchess is also something of a royal drop-out: she does not do royal duties any more, prefers to be called 'Kate Kent' and teaches piano lessons in London's Notting Hill to disadvantaged children.)

By contrast, when Princess Anne's son, Peter Phillips, married the Irish-Canadian Autumn Kelly last year, she chose to renounce her Catholic faith and become an Anglican -- sparing her bridegroom the rigmarole of resigning from his entitlements as 11th in line to the throne.

Fair enough: individuals may choose whatever faith they wish to embrace. But it remains an awkward element of the British constitution that while a 'British prince' may marry a Muslim, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Pantheist, an Animist, an Athiest or a worshipper of Wicca, the Witch-Goddess, Roman Catholics alone are still forbidden. Gordon Brown is anxious to update this aspect of the monarchy (and also to equalise succession as between genders, so that the first-born, be they male or female, succeeds.)

Some think that Gordon's political motive is that he needs to mend a few fences -- not to mention currying favour -- with his Labour base in Scotland, which has a strong Catholic element. He has lost ground with this constituency through various parliamentary measures such as approving legalisation of animal-human embryo hybrids, strongly condemned by the Scottish Catholic hierarchy.

Be that as it may, this religious matter is a constitutional question which does have a certain amount of relevance to Northern Ireland.

Republicans and strong nationalists in the North don't give a fig what the rules of the royal game are: to them (as to British republicans), the only progressive measure would be to abolish the monarchy altogether. However, this isn't going to happen any time soon, since the institution remains, on the whole, popular and is democratically supported. (And what would the celeb mags do without William and Harry?)

But there is a solid body of middle-of-the-road Northern Catholics who do care about this question. To them, the continuing, and unique, prohibition on Catholics marrying into the royal family is a 'symbolic' insult.

"I think the queen is a decent Christian woman," a Newry mother wrote to me. "But I do resent the fact that Catholics are still barred from marrying into the royal family, and being accepted properly. To me, it is a symbol of remaining bigotry."

In fact, it is a historically complex issue which has much to do with ensuring the dispossessed Stuarts would never make a claim to unseat the heirs of the House of Hanover. And Queen Elizabeth is the governor of the Church of England, which is thus "by law established": as things stand, the monarch must be an Anglican.

Still, ways can be found. The Dutch Royal House, a Lutheran monarchy, reached a perfectly sensible compromise when Crown Prince Willem-Alexander married an Argentine Catholic, Maxima Cerruti: each spouse could keep their own faith, but the children, to succeed to the monarchy, would be raised as Lutherans. The compromise has worked very harmoniously -- like all compromises, each side has had to give a little.

So, will the Dutch solution apply to the House of Windsor? Much depends on the Commonwealth, which has to be consulted on this issue. If the Commonwealth speaks with a strong voice, and makes workable recommendations, then these changes can be introduced.

What a pity Ireland's voice won't be among those consulted, especially since Ireland has a legitimate interest in expressing the views of the people of this island, which includes those Catholics who feel that the rules should be changed.

But since Ireland has excluded itself from the Commonwealth, there can be no input.

When you leave a club you may thereby assert your own independence from such networks. But you also lose empowerment in a sphere of influence which can touch your own national or cultural interest.

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