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Explainer: What would Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth actually look like?

The idea has been bandied about as a possibility in the context of a united Ireland.

Flag bearers during the Commonwealth Service at Westminster.
Flag bearers during the Commonwealth Service at Westminster.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

WITH BREXIT THROWING all kinds of seemingly outlandish political equations into the mainstream, one Irish example that previously could not be countenanced is now being openly discussed.

That is the question of Ireland joining The Commonwealth, most likely in the context of a united Ireland. 

With reunification now seen as a potential future outcome that politicians are being forced to consider, the issue of integrating northern unionists into a united Ireland is one that would be paramount.

One method that’s been suggested to aid this transition would be Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth. 

Speaking to the Fine Gael National Conference last weekend, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he hoped Ireland would join the Commonwealth

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald told TheJournal.ie last year that rejoining the Commonwealth was something that could be discussed as part of discussions on a united Ireland. 

McDonald said on Tuesday that it was not something she was personally in favour of while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said it was “not something that’s on the agenda”

But in the situation where a united Ireland was a real possibility and joining the Commonwealth was indeed ‘on the agenda’, what would this look like?

Firstly, what’s perhaps most relevant to Irish people is that rejoining the Commonwealth would not automatically mean that Queen Elizabeth II (or any future monarch) would become head of state. 

The Commonwealth is currently made up of 53 counties, 31 of which are themselves republics, and only 16 of the countries have the British Queen as head of state. 

Joining the Commonwealth alone would not change Ireland’s constitutional status and the country would likely retain its president as head of state.

(Presuming that this was agreed in a hypothetical united Ireland scenario).

South Africa, for example, is one Commonwealth member with a directly elected president.

But while Britain’s queen is not automatically the head of state of its members, she currently holds the position of Head of the Commonwealth.

It essentially puts her as head of the association, which itself also has a secretariat and a Secretary-General.   

Her position is not hereditary but it was agreed at a meeting of Commonwealth leaders last year that Prince Charles would succeed his mother in this position.  

In practice, The Commonwealth also does not have economic or trade remit, despite what some Brexiteers may say, and therefore would it not conflict with Ireland’s EU membership.

Two members of the Eurozone (Cyprus and Malta) are also members of the Commonwealth and therefore this would not pose a problem for Ireland. 

A number of other countries have also left and rejoined later, something which would suggest that this wouldn’t be an issue either. 

Instead, Ireland would have to make an expression of interest in joining and this would be assessed by the Secretary-General and then the member countries at its next meeting. 

Commonwealth Day 2019 Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state in just 16 of 53 Commonwealth nations. Source: Steve Parsons

Changed utterly

The position of the British monarch in the Commonwealth has changed greatly and is very different to when Ireland left in 1949.

When the country declared itself a republic it essentially ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth because it broke the connection with the British monarchy. 

India also did the same the following year, but the Commonwealth had adopted a new charter by this time.

The new charter dropped the word ‘British’ from the Commonwealth’s name and the allegiance to the crown was removed. 

This form of words allowed India to remain a member as a republic and this is considered to be the beginning of what’s referred to as the ‘modern Commonwealth’.

It meant that countries which were not British dominions could join the organisation and that is the basis by which countries can now join. 

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According to the criteria for membership laid out in 1997, countries that meet the principles of membership can join even if they were never part of the British Empire.

Instead what is required is that they have have had a constitutional association with an existing Commonwealth member. For example, Rwanda and Mozambique are both members having had no British colonial links.

In the years following the birth of the ‘modern Commonwealth’, the organisation’s primary role was about fostering democracy amongst its members and promoting standards of good governance.  

Its opposition to apartheid led to South Africa leaving in 1961 but during this period it also struggled to find a relevance. 

Professor Philip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, says this has been an ongoing problem for the organisation. 

“The Commonwealth has never had a very clear purpose, it’s assumed certain purposes at particular times. In the 60s, 70s and 80s it was very much focused on anti-racism and battling apartheid in South Africa, and really completing the process of decolonisation.”

But to be frank, once the apartheid issue left the stage, the Commonwealth has really struggled to find a clear identity. It claims to be useful in a huge variety of different ways, be it saving the rainforest to stopping global warming, but its actual contribution has been very difficult to identify.

Murphy goes on to say this lack of a direction has meant that the Commonwealth has in some ways reverted to a focus on the British royal family because it has found it difficult to get attention otherwise.

Something which, he says, may make Irish acceptance of rejoining more difficult.

90336988_90336988 The dining hall in Windsor Castle as Queen Elizabeth II hosts President Michael D Higgins. Source: Fennell Photography

“It’s also, paradoxically in a way, been taken over by the link with the royal family over the last 30 years or so,” Murphy says.

Prince Charles was last year confirmed as the next head of the Commonwealth, Prince Harry became Commonwealth youth ambassador, there’s been a thing called the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust set up quite recently, which Harry is president of and Meghan is vice president now.

“In terms of popular perception nowadays, and the Commonwealth secretariat knows this, the only way you’re only going to get media attention for the Commonwealth is if it’s a story linked to the Queen or Prince Charles or Meghan or Harry.”

Furthermore, Murphy adds that Brexit has also added to the perception of the Commonwealth being a kind of old imperial club. 

“Certainly the way that it has been used in the Brexit debate by the right-wing in Britain has the certain kind of nostalgic whiff of going back to old Commonwealth friends, ie the Empire. It’s not helpful for the Commonwealth’s attempts to define itself as a post-imperial international organisation.”

“You’ve got to distinguish in a way between the kind of constitutional reality and perception,” he adds.

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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