Friday 18 October 2019

Joining the Commonwealth would help address the Brexit conundrum

New links with Brexiting Britain are needed. Providing reassurance to unionists is too. Both could be achieved by joining up, writes Dan O'Brien

'Brexit has meant that Ireland has had to choose between staying in the EU or leaving with Britain.' Stock photo: PA
'Brexit has meant that Ireland has had to choose between staying in the EU or leaving with Britain.' Stock photo: PA

Ireland is a maturing nation. The post-colonial inferiority complex that dogged previous generations is mostly consigned to history. The economic crash and ignominious bailout of recent years have made nobody proud, but those knocks have done little to undermine a nation that has steadily grown in self-confidence.

The confident and outward- looking nature of Irish people is reflected in the posture the Irish state takes towards the rest of the world. Underpinning Irish foreign policy is a belief in an open, free-trading world supported by international institutions with solid rules-based foundations.

The concrete expression of this posture is membership of a whole array of international organisations. Membership and active involvement in the United Nations and its large family of institutions have been central to Irish foreign policy since the middle of the last century. Being in the World Trade Organisation and involvement in global efforts to reduce climate change are just two other examples of how the state puts its belief in multilateralism into practice.

Regionally, the score is the same. Ireland is a member of most of our continent's common institutions or frameworks, including the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Partnership for Peace.

But it is membership of the European Union that is, by a distance, the Irish state's deepest international commitment. EU membership has had many dimensions over the decades. Among the most beneficial has been the impact on Ireland-Britain relations.

It is quite simply impossible to find anyone in politics or diplomacy in Ireland who does not believe that sitting around the table with their British counterparts in EU fora has been an important factor in normalising relations between the two states.

The simple familiarisation process of politicians and officials meeting frequently in Brussels is one part of the story. Another has been the constant need to discuss common EU priorities. All of this has brought the two countries closer together. And for younger readers who don't have personal recollections of how tense Dublin-London relations used to be, it's worth recalling that it is only in the current decade that our respective heads of state have done what is so normal for friendly countries - conduct formal state visits.

Britain's departure from the EU has many implications for Ireland south and north. One way to mitigate the effects, in part at least, would be to join an international organisation from which we have been curiously absent: the Commonwealth.

Joining that club would do three things in the current period of great uncertainty on these islands.

First, it would send an important signal to unionists at a time when there is ever more talk of ending partition. Second, it would send a signal to Britain that despite sometimes having to take tough stances with the other EU 26 countries in Brexit negotiations, the bilateral relationship remains of great value and importance to Ireland. Third, it would provide an institutional forum in which Irish ministers and officials could interact with their British counterparts in the way that they currently do in the EU.

Before fleshing out the case for joining, which was strong even before Brexit, any perceived downsides need to be addressed.

The reason some people tend to react negatively to the idea of joining a club Ireland left almost 70 years ago is because there is a misplaced view that in some way it would signal subservience to the British. That is a misunderstanding of the nature of the club.

The commonwealth (it long ago ceased being the "British Commonwealth") is made up of 52 mostly English-speaking countries from around the world. More than half of members are republics. One in three people on the planet lives is a commonwealth country. While it is not a particularly important organisation for any of its members, they are all in it because they believe it is in their interests to be in it.

Fellow EU member countries Cyprus and Malta are both in the commonwealth. In neither country is there any opposition to membership and nobody sees being in the club as giving Britain any sort of undue sway over them. The same is true for Australians, Canadians and Indians.

So if there is nothing threatening or disadvantageous about joining, consider the benefits.

One of the less discussed implications of Brexit will the ending of the huge amount of Ireland-Britain ministerial and official contact that happens within the EU framework. As with so many other negative aspects of Brexit, there is no way to mitigate this downside in full. But the commonwealth has fora in which leaders, ministers and officials meet. These are not as frequent as EU meetings, but joining the commonwealth club would make up, in some small way, for the loss of institutional contact that will happen after Brexit.

Perhaps more important would be the friendly signal joining would send across the water.

Brexit has meant that Ireland has had to choose between staying in the EU or leaving with Britain. Little real consideration has been given to the latter option because it would be economically suicidal, while at the same time in no way guaranteeing that economic links with Britain would be protected (for example, Irish agriculture will be devastated if Britain goes for a cheap food policy, and that will be the case even if Ireland were to leave the EU and do a trade deal with the UK).

Having been obliged to take sides in the Brexit process has inevitably tested the Dublin-London relationship. While it remains much better than it once was, it is at its most strained since the early 1990s. Joining the commonwealth would send an important signal to Britain of the importance of the relationship and of a willingness on Ireland's part to take active steps to keep it strong even as the UK exits the EU.

Perhaps most importantly of all, joining the club would send an important signal to those on this island who value their British identity. With the politics of Northern Ireland in crisis, a return to direct rule imminent, a real question mark hanging over the institutions of devolved government and considerable constitutional uncertainty around the continued existence of the UK itself, there is sense that the tectonic plates are moving. Together with demographic changes in Northern Ireland and the realistic prospect of a Jeremy Corbyn-led government in the UK (the Labour leader is no friend of unionism), the probability of British withdrawal is rising.

If that happens, it will be vital that those who feel British retain links with Britain. Membership of the commonwealth would be one means of achieving that. It would also signal that the majority tradition on this island is comfortable having a close relationship with Britain.

Joining the commonwealth would have no downsides for Ireland. Membership would bring multiple benefits. It is a club of friendly nations whose values align with Ireland's. Joining would show - to ourselves as much as anyone else - that we have moved beyond the old resentments and sensitivities. It would be the act of fully mature and self-confident nation.

Sunday Independent

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