Andrew Lloyd is a former Army Chaplain and currently chairs a board of charitable trustees.
The Queen has today welcomed the President of Ireland to Windsor Castle, and Westminster will welcome him to address Parliament, as he begins a historic state visit. Ireland is a proud, vibrant and fiercely independent nation, and we can delight in such a neighbour. Our nations sit at many of the same international tables and share many common causes in the UN, EU and OSCE, among others. The Taoiseach, Mr Kenny joined the G8 leaders for part of the summit in Northern Ireland, and not just as a courtesy. The Olympic torch for the 2012 Games travelled the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland. We share many history and deep economic, social, sporting and cultural ties. We are family and friends.
Ireland is not, however, a member of the Commonwealth. An organisation committed to good governance, democracy, human rights, peace, individual liberty and the eradication of poverty, ignorance and disease is a place you would expect to find modern Ireland.
Ireland in 2014 still only toys with any idea of renewed membership of the Commonwealth which she helped to forge. The wounds of history and political dispute explain their absence for the last 65 years, but the approaching centenary of the Easter Rising and the forthcoming Presidential visit are good moments to reflect. The Commonwealth is a quarter of the globe, a third of its population, with 15 per cent of its GDP worth nearly £10 trillion, and members enjoy on average 50 per cent more trade with another member than with a non-member. The more than 100 associations and organisations that make up the Commonwealth family offer endless opportunities to Ireland, but how much more does Ireland offer to the Commonwealth?
The Irish Diasporas celebrate their national identity all over the world and not just in the bars and parades of New York, Chicago and Boston. The Irish helped create and administer the British Empire, their generals and admirals defended it, their missionaries preached a gospel to its peoples while educating them and caring for their health. The ancestries of many of those who govern in Canberra, Ottawa and Wellington and of course in Westminster have a distinctly Irish feel about them. Ireland directs its aid budget, described by the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin as a cornerstone of its policy, mainly to projects in 13 countries. Of those, 9 are members of the Commonwealth. India, the largest democracy in the world and Commonwealth member, is going to the polls over nine phases lasting until the 12th May, with nearly 815 million electors voting for the next Lok Sabha. This extraordinary feat is conducted under what is reputed to be the world’s lengthiest constitution, whose authors drew inspiration from the founding documents of the Irish Republic.
It was to allow the members of the first Irish Free State Parliament, after independence in 1922, to take an oath of allegiance that the very notion of a Commonwealth rather than Empire was given its first statutory recognition. On becoming a Republic in 1949, under its then rules, Ireland fell out of the Commonwealth (it never formally withdrew). The rules of membership changed to meet the needs of future members who were republics and it dropped the ‘British’ prefix from its name. It was the start of the modern Commonwealth.
Increasing recognition and interest in the distinct Irish contributions to the Great War and World War II has meant the extent of Irish sacrifices is more widely understood. Thousands of Irishmen died in the trenches of the First World War; and of 50,000 neutral Southern Irish volunteers in WW2, 250 died in Bomber Command alone. 16 per cent of British military nurses originated in the Republic, as well as 28 members of the SAS, 11 of whom were executed by the Nazis. British military have served alongside the Irish Army in Sarajevo, Kosovo, Cyprus and Afghanistan. They have been a continuous and very honourable presence in UN peacekeeping since 1958, losing 86 men. They are today participating in 14 missions, including guarding the Golan Heights. The recruitment records of the UK armed forces would be much worse without the significant presence of Irish citizens. Ireland has a respected commitment to democracy, freedom, human rights and peace. It is why the visit by Enda Kenny and David Cameron to Commonwealth War Graves sites in Belgium last December was both timely and appropriate.
The journey to this point for Britain and Ireland has been full of pain and failure, but the future promises much in our closest relationship. A good start might be Irish participation in a Commonwealth body or association. We should let it be known in Ireland how welcome an application to rejoin the other 52 fiercely independent members in this enduring family would be received.