16 March 2012

Commonwealth Fantasies

There was an annoying article in last Friday's Daily Mail in which David Burnside MLP, formerly Ulster Unionist MP for South Antrim, argued that it was time for Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly known as the British Commonwealth. This, he claimed, would be good for Ireland and good for the Commonwealth as a whole, as well as a wonderful present to Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of her sixty years on the throne.

Putting aside what we might think of Burnside's thesis, it's worth addressing some of his historical errors.
1. 'Relations between the Irish Republic and the UK were at their lowest ever point in the last third of the twentieth century because of the troubles.'
Is it really credible to decribe a 33-year period as a 'point', especially when the Republic of Ireland hasn't yet existed for 63 years?

Perhaps Burnside means that the specific lowest point in relations between Britain and Ireland since the Republic of Ireland act came into force occurred during that 33-year period. This is certainly an arguable claim, given that the most obvious challengers for the title of 'lowest point in relations between independent Ireland and the UK' -- the Economic War and the Emergency -- took place while Ireland was still a dominion.
2. 'Ministers in Charles Haughey’s Government shamefully helped to found and fund the Provisional IRA.'
Given that the Provisional IRA was founded in 1969, and that Haughey did not head a government until 1979, this statement doesn't quite add up.

Nonetheless, it's possible to see what Burnside is getting at, albeit in a muddled way. In 1970, during the so-called 'Arms Crisis', Haughey and Neil Blaney were both sacked from Jack Lynch's government for allegedly attempting to arm the Provisional IRA. The matter went to court, with Blaney being acquitted on 2 July 1970 and Haughey on 23 October 1970. I'm not saying the lads were innocent by any means, but I don't think anyone can claim with any degree of historical honesty that they were arming the IRA. We just don't know. 
3. 'The Republic continued its imperialistic, constitutional claim over Northern Ireland as an integral part of the Irish Republic, gave succour and support to IRA terrorism and refused to extradite murderers across the border to stand trial for their crimes.'
That the Republic, under the old articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, laid claim to Northern Ireland can hardly be disputed.

Whether it gave succour and support to IRA terrorism is probably a matter of debate, although a fair analysis of the subject would have to recognise that Provisional IRA never accepted the legitimacy of the Irish State, that IRA membership was illegal throughout the Troubles as it is now, and that between 1971 and 1993 it was illegal under section 31 of the Broadcasting Act for Sinn Féin members to speak on Irish airwaves in any capacity.

It is true that extradition warrants for terrorist offences were regularly turned down during the Troubles, either because their offences were recognised as having been politically motivated, or because in many case there was a concern that the accused would not receive a fair trial or would be mistreated in prison. Between 1972 and 1990, for instance, only 7 of 112 extradition requests were granted, with 41 being refused.
4. 'The Belfast Agreement brought the Irish Republic in from the cold.'
This statement is perhaps too nebulous to challenge, but I do not think many people would argue that Ireland had been a pariah state prior to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Even in terms of dealings with the United Kingdom over Northern Ireland the position is scarcely sustainable; it's important to note how Burnside omits 1985's Anglo-Irish Agreement from his thesis.
5. 'Britain’s recent £7bn loan to Dublin in the Republic’s hour of need as it faced the eurozone meltdown underlines Britain’s commitment to Ireland, her closest neighbour.'
This is true, as far as it goes, but it's somewhat disingenuous to paint this as an act of altruism. The Mail itself reported in November 2010 that British banks -- and by extension British taxpayers -- were owed £88bn by Irish banks. The British State loaned money to the Irish State so that Ireland could repay money Irish banks owed British ones. And that's not even getting into how much money British banks were owed by continental ones, with them fearing an Irish collapse could bring down the entire Eurozone, washing them away in the financial tsunami that would follow.
6. 'Last year’s Royal visit to the Irish Republic, with all the symbolism it contained - the Queen's visit to the Gardens of Remembrance for both British servicemen and also Irish Republicans who died during the War of Independence...'
The first of the two memorial gardens the Queen visited when in Ireland was the Garden of Remembrance. This is not merely a memorial to those Irish Republicans who died during the War of Independence; it is a memorial to all those who died in the cause of Irish freedom, including the rebels of 1798, 1803, 1848, 1867, 1916, and the War of Independence.

The Irish National War Memorial Gardens at Islandbridge, the second memorial garden the Queen visited, is not a memorial garden for British servicemen. It pays no homage to the men of Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire who were slain at the Battle of Mount Street Bridge, for instance, nor to those Lancastrians and Yorkshiremen who fell at Gallipoli.

Rather, the garden is a memorial to all those Irish who fell in World War One, in whatever army -- most served in the army of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, of course, but others served in the American army, and yet more served in the armies of such British dominions as Canada and Australia.

The Great Cross of Sacrifice also bears the dates of the Second World War, so the gardens also operate as a memorial to all those Irish who fought and died as Irish servicemen in British or other uniforms during that struggle.
7. 'The old Fianna Fail Republicanism of De Valera, who withdrew the Irish Republic from the Commonwealth after the Second World War, should now be replaced by the independent Irish Republic rejoining the Commonwealth, where many thousands if not millions of Commonwealth citizens of Irish descent now live.'
It was John A. Costello, and not Éamon de Valera, who withdrew the Republic from the Commonwealth. Costello was Taoiseach from 1948 to 1951; it was under him that the Republic of Ireland Act was signed into law in December 1948 and came into force in April 1949. By becoming a republic we automatically left the Commonwealth; the British changed the rules a few days later, and de Valera took the government of the day to task for not applying to rejoin once it was possible to do so. I think Burnside's done him an injustice here.

Burnside's claim that thousands if not millions of Commonwealth citizens are of Irish descent is, of course, a colossal understatement. It is estimated that as many as six million people in the UK alone have at least one Irish grandparent, and this is without considering those of deeper ancestry, not to mention all those in Canada, Australia, and elsewhere.

It's certainly arguable that David Burnside might well be right that Ireland should rejoin the Commonwealth; the same can hardly be said of the arguments he puts forward in support of his case.

And yes, I know, there are probably better ways to spend my time than explaining why somebody in the Daily Mail is wrong. Still, what's done is done.

1 comment:

Shane said...

Fantastic post! In Britain itself the Commonwealth is widely viewed as an irrelevant and outdated organization. The idea that Ireland joining it would improve Anglo-Irish relations is very dubious. More likely, it would do nothing more than provide another gravy train to the already quite fat political establishment (much like 'twinning').