By John Kelly
For the first time since 1949, the Commonwealth has become a live issue in Ireland after the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, declared that he would not oppose debate on the subject. Few Irish people seem to understand just why he invited such a potentially divisive topic.
It was in 1949 that the then taoiseach, John A. Costello, the leader of a shaky coalition government, surprisingly announced, during a visit to Canada, that the Republic of Ireland had opted to leave the post-imperial, loose federation of nations.
It caused little dismay at the time even though the decision was made without any real political debate. Nobody is bothered too much with it now either. Few seem to know what it’s all about. The only politician who is kicking up any sort of a fuss is Eamon O’Cuiv, the Fianna Fail TD, based in Galway, and the grandson of Eamon de Valera.
"Dev Og," as he is more commonly known in his Irish-speaking constituency, floated that particular kite some years ago when he suggested that Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth. He generated quite a lot of publicity not as the result of his suggestion but primarily because of who he was. There was practically no debate.
However, low key as it is, discussion has now begun with the visit to Ireland of a Nigerian-born chief, Emeka Anyuoaka, who is the secretary general of the Commonwealth of Nations.
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Naturally, he has been offered many public platforms to explain to the Irish people why they should rejoin the federation, which has a membership of 54 nations, 33 of them republics. The British monarch is still titular head of the assembly. All of the member states are former colonies.
It is something of a side show in the broad canvas of Irish events, especially when compared with the dangerous stalemate over cross-border bodies and arms decommissioning. At any other time it would have been given much more newspaper coverage, but not now, not when the peace process seems to have become bogged down.
There are ominous undertones in this delay. "Sunningdale for slow learners," was how the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Seamus Mallon, famously described the peace process in its earlier stages. He may yet be proven correct, especially if the unionist parties continue to dig in their heels on decommissioning.
David Trimble and John Taylor are obviously keen to use it as a brake on developments that may not be to their liking. Trimble even laid great stress on it in the course of his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo. If they proceed with such delaying tactics when the Northern Assembly is finally formed, the end result may be as ignominious as the breakdown of the Sunningdale Agreement.
The peace process, of course, has proven to be a huge propaganda victory for Sinn Fein and republicanism in general. The unionists continue to expose themselves for what they are, a recalcitrant, begrudging throwback to an imperial past and a "Great Britain," espoused by only a handful within the Tory Party. The argument about arms decommissioning is as old as the first overtures regarding the Good Friday agreement, a pact that Taylor declared he would not touch with a 40-foot barge pole. It is not a pre-condition to the establishment of an assembly. That is a bald, plain fact, acknowledged by Blair in his historic address to the joint bodies of Irish government.
It is not the responsibility of loyalists to supervise any decommissioning. That is for Gen. John de Chastelain to oversee. He can hardly do much until the Patten inquiry into the RUC releases its report.
The decommissioning issue should be dismissed for what it is, a convenient brake to be used by the unionists whenever the pace of events speeds up too quickly for their liking. It seems now that they will have to be pushed all the way, all the time. The British and Irish governments, with the continued aid of the U.S. president, should not be slow about doing so. Worrying as the delay is, what is of concern is the attitude unionists may adopt in a future government of Northern Ireland.
Are they going to continue to oppose any progressive policies to decommission minds and hearts as well as weapons? If that is how Northern Ireland is going to be governed, there are dangerous times ahead.
It is necessary to fudge over some of the logic underlying the peace process. Otherwise, it could not have worked at all. For example, both the Irish and British governments have clearly decided not to follow the logic of their conclusion that the process should work because it is the expressed will of the vast majority of the people on the island of Ireland. If that is so, then why, one might ask, is Ireland partitioned at all?
After all, on the few occasions the question was put to the people, a clear majority was in favor of a united island. Yet, in accepting the terms of the Good Friday agreement, the Irish people, republican and otherwise, have put that matter aside.
It is not just good enough for unionists to conclude that they are the big losers. Certain past truisms have to be suspended if the future is going to be secured at all. A debate must be allowed to proceed even if it means shelving certain issues that may later provide their own solutions when the discussion is coming to a close.
Trimble should reexamine some of the main points he made in his speech in Oslo. There, he revealed himself as being essentially a political pragmatist. He decried the politics of religious sectarianism in a way that few, if any, leaders of his party ever did in the past. Pleading that it is better to walk then to run, he welcomed the fact that tomorrow is another day and that politicians must deal with situations in a clearsighted, realistic fashion.
Let him get on with it then. And let the Irish on all of the island leave the Commonwealth question for another month — or even a year.