Wednesday 21 August 2019

We influenced the early Commonwealth, so it's a pity Ireland isn't taking part in Games

England's Steven Way in action in the Men's Marathon during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: Danny Lawson
England's Steven Way in action in the Men's Marathon during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. Photo: Danny Lawson

Not a lot of people know – as Michael Caine is apt to say – that the Irish Free State played an influential role in developing the character of the Commonwealth, that group of 53 nations which arose out of the former British Empire.

Because it was understood that the new Irish state might just be hostile to the notion of British imperialism – I'll say! – allusions to that imperialism were first watered down in 1921, with the wording in the Anglo-Irish Treaty to the role of the King.

And then with a move, partly because of Irish sensibilities, towards ever greater autonomy of the Commonwealth nations – the Irish Free State was the first Commonwealth member in the 1920s to insist on appointing its own Governor-General, rather than meekly accepting the decision of Westminster, the "Imperial" government.

The Statute of Westminster enacted in 1931 widened that national autonomy among the then Dominions, abolishing the notion of an "Imperial" parliament in London – calling it merely "first among equals".

Over the decades since then the notion has developed further that the Commonwealth is a group of friendly nations which, mostly, shares a common use of the English language (though Mozambique speaks Portuguese as a European tongue, and Mauritius is heavily influenced by French) and a historical tie with the British crown.

Since the 1970s there have been energetic efforts to shed the prefix "British" to the Commonwealth – in 1978, once and for all, an international sporting event held every four years was named just the "Commonwealth" Games, with all mention of "British" deleted.

Considering what was once Eire's role in evolving the Commonwealth – in nudging it away from associations with British imperialism and towards devolved ideas of autonomy – it seems perhaps a little rueful that at the rather jolly jamboree in Glasgow now taking place, Irish athletes from the Republic of Ireland have no part (and the Commonwealth contains several republics).

Particularly since Glasgow is a city so heavily influenced in its culture by Irish immigration – why, one of the key locations for the current games is the home of Celtic, the football team which so often flies the Irish Tricolour as its symbol of allegiance.

It was even considered quite a breakthrough by commentators that 'God Save the Queen' was sung with sincerity and respect in Celtic Park at last Wednesday evening's inauguration – amazing grace!

Of course, Northern Ireland is represented, since the 53 countries of the Commonwealth are further devolved into 71 competing teams: and, tellingly, the Northern Ireland team wear green. At the opening Barry McGuigan said that the Commonwealth Games had been "the bedrock of my career".

Disabled competitors are also particularly positive about the Commonwealth Games because they are permitted to compete alongside able-bodied athletes where they can – and the disabled were vividly visible in the parades at the colourful opening ceremony.

Is it regrettable that the Republic of Ireland is absent? There must be Irish athletes who must entertain the thought that participation in the Commonwealth Games would be a good opportunity to get competitive experience – any chance to run against a Kenyan would be enviable, or to play rugby against the cracking New Zealanders. But, politically, association with the Commonwealth has never been much of a vote-winner in the Republic; and even as the Irish Free State, feelings towards the Commonwealth ranged from hostile to diffident.

And yet, the situation is today much more fluid than is widely understood: various members dip in and out of the Commonwealth club – South Africa was unacceptable during the apartheid years – and Pakistan has been ambivalent. Zimbabwe is not, at present, a player and Fiji was "demoted" because of a democratic deficit (though even Queen Victoria thought the acquisition of Fiji was too imperialistic – "we do not annex territories", she announced icily).

Fiji is now restored – and it was uplifting to see the South African team appear in all its rainbow composition, its apartheid past now dissolved in a wreath of smiles on faces of all colours.

International sporting events are, at best, a harmless form of national pride intermingled with a stimulating element of cosmopolitan competition.

National identities change and morph into new shapes, and everyone in Scotland is aware that by the next Commonwealth Games, Scotland itself could be outside of the United Kingdom – the referendum on Scottish independence due in September – though Alex Salmond, the nationalist leader, has said they will remain within the Commonwealth. (Some English athletes were anxious about appearing at Glasgow, fearing a hostile reception: yet the English team got a rousingly warm cheer.)

Sport may endorse nationalism, and lend a gossamer equality to very contrasting national entities – tiny Samoa and St Helena on a level playing field with Canada and India – yet its common reach can break down barriers and open new fields. Who would have thought that the Giro d'Italia would take place in Belfast, or that Yorkshire would become a cheering host to the Tour de France?

Successful sportsmen and women are often owned by a wider constituency than political boundaries dictate – we are quick enough to claim Rory McIlroy for the whole of Ireland.

On this, at least, most people would surely agree: that in a world of much cruelty, violence and affliction, the Commonwealth Games, merrily welcomed to his native Glasgow by Billy Connolly, do no harm, and bring much pleasure. At Celtic Park, the play's the thing.

Mary Kenny

Irish Independent

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