By Sir Ronald Sanders KCMG AM
Sir Ronald Sanders is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He was a member and Rapporteur of the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group (2010-2011) and a former Caribbean Diplomat.
“Get Ireland back in the Commonwealth” – that might well have been the most prominent headline in relation to a report submitted to the 2011 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Australia.
At its very last meeting in June 2011, the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), mandated by the 2009 Commonwealth Summit to make recommendations for reform of the Commonwealth, removed from its report a proposal encouraging Ireland to re-join the association.[i]
Eire, as the Republic of Ireland was known, was a member of the Commonwealth until 18 April 1949 when The Republic of Ireland Act 1948 (adopted on 24 November 1948) came into force severing all formal ties with the British Crown. The general feeling at the time – and certainly one that would have been gleaned from a meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government the year before – was that Republican status was incompatible with membership of the Commonwealth since all members swore allegiance to the British Crown as Head of State. Both the governments of Ireland and India had made it known that they were proceeding to make their countries Republics. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister, proposed a Ten Point Memorandum to the 1948 Summit which was rejected as a basis for continued Commonwealth membership. The only agreement on the issue was that a further conference would be required.
The conclusions of the 1948 meeting would not have been encouraging news for Ireland which, as far back as 1936, had already removed references to the Monarch from Irish constitutional law. The amendments had left to the Crown only the functions of signing Letters of Credence accrediting Irish Ambassadors to other States, and signing international treaties on Ireland’s behalf. That, together with the overwhelming sentiment among the Irish people that there should be no hint of subordination to Britain that allegiance to the British Crown would imply, was enough for the Irish government to be convinced that it would have to leave the Commonwealth upon becoming a Republic.
Remarkably, on 28 April 1949 – just 10 days after the Republic of Ireland Act came into force – the Commonwealth Heads agreed a formula that allowed India to continue membership as a Republic by acceptance of the King “as the symbol of the free association of its independent member nations and as such the Head of the Commonwealth”. The force of the Declaration was to replace “allegiance to the Crown” with the more modest acceptance of the King in the purely ceremonial role as a symbolic Head of the Commonwealth. It allowed India to remain a member of the Commonwealth and many more Republics to become Commonwealth members over the years that followed.
Had the Irish government stayed its hand for 10 days, like India, Ireland might have remained a member of a Commonwealth that was no longer “British” but a free association of countries with no allegiance to the British Crown and no domination by Britain.
The EPG considered this background carefully. The Group also took account of the fact that Ireland and the Irish people had had long associations with both old and new Commonwealth countries; that trade continued between Ireland and Commonwealth countries; that Ireland’s modest aid programme was largely to Commonwealth countries; and Ireland’s values fitted with those the Commonwealth declared. On that basis, the following passage was accepted by the majority of members for inclusion in the report:
We raise the matter of Ireland in relation to the Commonwealth, particularly in a climate when other countries are showing a great interest in joining the organisation.
Ireland decided to become a Republic and, on that basis, withdrew from the Commonwealth just days before the April 1949 Meeting of Heads of Government agreed that Republican status was not incompatible with Commonwealth status. In a sense, Ireland left the old Commonwealth.
Before 1949 and since then, Ireland and many Commonwealth countries have enjoyed a relationship whose roots run deep. The special cultural, intellectual and historical links of Ireland with all members of the Commonwealth make its relationship with the Commonwealth a special and unique case.
It would seem natural that Ireland should be with these countries in a common organisation, particularly as significant mutual benefits would be derived from their renewed connection. These include: Ireland’s strong civil society with a wealth of people and knowledge that could be tapped by the many Commonwealth professional associations; a large Irish Diaspora in many Commonwealth countries; the potential for exchanging lessons learned with other Commonwealth countries on developing resilience to conflict; the great potential for the Irish government and Irish civil society to work with Commonwealth countries, through Commonwealth institutions, in the international financial community.
We recognise that any decision to join again with other Commonwealth countries is a matter for the Irish government and people in the first instance. They should know that they would be welcome. We believe that there would be such great mutual benefit in Ireland’s membership of the Commonwealth that we strongly encourage civil society organisations to explore and promote this possibility”.
In the end the EPG’s decision to exclude this proposal on Ireland’s membership of the Commonwealth turned on whether it would do more harm than good. We recognised that if Ireland were to re-join the Commonwealth it would have to be done on the basis that its people understood that the Commonwealth was no longer “British”, and Ireland would have an equal voice in all the Commonwealth did and represented. We also knew that the Commonwealth would have to be seen as an attractive organisation that delivered something different and special. Those judgements were best made by the Irish people. [ii]
[i] A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, The Report of the Eminent Persons Group to Commonwealth Heads of Government, 2011, Commonwealth Secretariat, London. Members of the Group were: Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (Chairman, Malaysia), Dr Emmanuel Akwetey (Ghana), Ms Patricia Francis (Jamaica), Dr Asma Jahangir (Pakistan), Mr Samuel Kavuma (Uganda), The Hon Michael Kirby Australia), Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Britain), Sir Ronald Sanders (Guyana), Senator Hugh Segal (Canada), Sir Ierrmia Tabai (Kiribati)
[ii] For more on the reasons why the EPG ommitted this section from their report, see pages 22-23 of Dr Sue Onslow’s interview with Sir Ronald Sanders