“the long goodbye”?
It must be the silly season – people are talking about whether Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth.
This notion is a hardy perennial of the summer school circuit, where the great and the good gather to ponder, pontificate and proselytise.
Let them at it, it’s fairly harmless. If I run out of things to blog about, I might even discuss it at some point. But for the moment, let’s just say it’s not going to happen, whatever Frankie Feighan and Éamon O Cuív might think.
However, talk of Ireland and the Commonwealth is strangely timely, given the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU.
Much as it might pain Nigel Farage and Boris Johnston, Britain could get some pointers for Brexit from our own Commonwealth Exit nearly 70 years ago.
To start with some differences: Ireland wasn’t really a member of the Commonwealth in 1948, when we announced we were leaving. We had been at best semi-detached since Fianna Fáil came to power in 1932; and even less connected after the current Constitution was adopted in 1937.
That Constitution gave us, internally, the status of a Republic, with all power derived from the people, not from a monarch; and with an elected President as a Head of State.
But, because de Valera wanted to keep a bridge open to Northern Ireland, he kept a kind of link to the British Crown, with the External Relations Act. This allowed the British King to carry out certain diplomatic functions on our behalf, such as accrediting diplomats.
This could cause problems. During World War II, for instance, we needed to send a new diplomatic representative to Berlin. The problem was we’d have to get King George VI to write a letter to Adolf Hitler appointing the new man. Needless to say, we kept our post in Berlin going with a temporary stand-in.
This type of thing meant that, as far as foreign countries were concerned, the King was our Head of State, so they tended to regard Ireland as subservient to Britain.
So, internally a Republic; but one of the King’s Dominions as far as the rest of the world was concerned; in and out of the Commonwealth at the one time. An Irish solution to an Irish problem if ever there was one.
The other difference with Brexit is that the decision to leave wasn’t made by the people in a Referendum, but by the government. And this was quite deliberate. The Constitution says that the name of the State is Eire (or, in the second official language, Ireland). The first Inter-Party Government, a coalition led by John A. Costello, wanted to declare Ireland a Republic, so they passed legislation saying that “the description” of the State would be the Republic of Ireland – so no change to the Constitution was required. Sneaky, but quite clever!
But here’s where Nigel Farage (or his successor), and David Cameron (or his successor), and Jeremy Corbyn (or his successor) should listen up: the British Government in 1948 was just as annoyed about us as the EU is today about the British.
Irish ministers were summoned to a meeting at Chequers, where dire warnings were issued. Trade would be stopped! Free movement would be blocked! The economic consequences would be catastrophic!
Of course, none of this happened. Not because the British love us. Not because they didn’t think we deserved a kick in the behind. But quite simply because it wasn’t in their interest.
Blocking Irish imports to Britain would have hurt the British economy as much as the Irish; stopping Irish immigration would have been both difficult and damaging to Britain; in the end, it was both easier and better for Britain to suck it up and play nice.
There were of course downsides for Ireland to leaving the Commonwealth, as there will be for the UK outside the EU. But in the 1940s we decided it was worth the pain in order to clarify our independence from Britain. Perhaps the Brexiteers aren’t as different from us as we sometimes think.