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Should Ireland Join the British Commonwealth?


In the wake of  Brexit, the conversation around constitutional change in Ireland has gained a lot of attention, and momentum.   In the Irish unification conversation a question that arises occasionally is, should Ireland join the British Commonwealth?  The question springs from a sentiment that such a move would be a “good will” gesture to Unionism, one that might make Unionists feel more welcome and comfortable in a new All Island constitutional arrangement.

There is no doubt Nationalism needs to address Unionist concerns in a spirit of generosity.  Indeed I would suggest nationalism should go as far as is  politically feasible.  Some requests made by Unionism may not be deliverable, this is just a political reality.   For example, work already done by the ARINS Project (& others) illustrates potential difficulties for nationalism over issues such as changing the Irish Flag or National Anthem.  These matters would be hugely problematic for nationalism as they may split the base, they are probably something even a generous nationalism may not be able to deliver.  Ireland, as a nation, joining the British Commonwealth may not be politically deliverable either.  But there is another way.

According to the ARINS Project research, maintaining British Citizenship and the NHS are more important to unionists than Ireland joining the Commonwealth.  It therefore seems joining the Commonwealth has little political benefit for supporters of Irish unification, yet it carries significant risk (see point 3 below).  If Nationalism wants to win the middle ground & non aligned voters, instead of joining the Commonwealth, Irish nationalism would be better served by making amendments to Bunreacht na hEireann, the Irish Constitution. The amendment should recognize in law, the right of those born in NI who hold British Citizenship, to retain that citizenship post unification. This cohort would comprise of those citizens born in NI who have a “British Only” identity (passport) and those who hold both an “Irish & British” identity (passports).  The retention of that British citizenship should be enduring, meaning, it is an entitlement inherited by their children & grandchildren.

  1. What does Unionism say?:
    Unionists have not yet actively sought Ireland’s membership in the British Commonwealth, & research indicates it is not a priority for the Unionist community in any United Ireland discussions.  British citizenship and NHS are Unionism’s two main issues.
  2. Good Friday Agreement (GFA) Implications:
    The terms of the Good Friday Agreement regarding citizenship could endure post reunification, meaning NI born Unionists could retain their British citizenship and associated rights, regardless of any changes in constitutional arrangements.  This means the issue of Ireland’s non membership of the Commonwealth doesn’t affect a Unionist’s British citizenship status.  Unionists in Northern Ireland will be in the Commonwealth before, during and after the referendum.  Simply put, due to their British Citizenship status and accompanying rights, Unionists never left the Commonwealth even after Irish unification.  This should be recognized and codified into both Irish & British law.  Therefore there is no pressing need for Ireland to join as a nation.  Ultimately British citizenship is a matter for the British government, and Irish citizenship is a matter for the Irish government.  So the topic would require cooperation from both the British & Irish governments, the appropriate forum where agreement could be found is at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
  3. Friction within Nationalism:
    Joining the British Commonwealth could potentially divide the nationalist voter base in Ireland, as it might become a point of friction between nationalist individuals, groups & political parties.  Such division in the base would only serve to weaken and possibly defeat any United Ireland referendum proposal. Nationalism must also be aware that Unionists may, in the future, “ask” for particular concessions as a mere tactic, in full knowledge the request cannot be delivered.  The objective of such requests would be to slow the unification process & cause division within the pro unification voter base.  Such is the cut & thrust of politics.  As previously mentioned, additional “asks” could be to change the Irish flag or Irish national anthem.  Nationalism needs to find an agreed position on these matters.
  4. Importance to Unionists:
    Given the potential for division within Irish nationalism, and the lack of significant demand from Unionism, there is no need for the Irish government to elevate this issue to a national debate about joining the British Commonwealth.  The matter is probably best left to the personal preference of the individual citizen.  To achieve this Irish Government should instead support a Constitutional Amendment recognizing the British Citizenship rights of Unionists within a Unitary State.  This would have the added advantage that it would be compliant with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.
  5. Support for British Citizens in Ireland:
    There should be financial & political support for British citizens in Ireland who wish to participate in Commonwealth activities, such as the Commonwealth Games. This support should exist even if Ireland itself is not an official member of the Commonwealth.

In summary,  joining the British Commonwealth is not a priority or necessity for Ireland, especially considering its potential for dividing opinion within the Nationalist voter base.  Given the considerable pitfalls & minimal upside, nationalism should not consider joining the Commonwealth as a nation.  Additionally, nationalism does possess the ability to create the constitutional space, via a constitutional amendment, to recognize & respect the rights of those Unionist citizens living on the island who will remain part of the British Commonwealth.

Please contribute your thoughts in the comment box below and feel free to share this article on your socials.

10 thoughts on “Should Ireland Join the British Commonwealth?

  1. Goodwill is not what Britania has shown Ireland and Scotland in the past.
    This must never happen for their atrocities of the past.
    Should Éirinn unite it must be for Ireland, excluding Britania, Saorsa!

    1. Hi Keith, thank you for your response:

      “Perfidious Albion” certainly has a sad historical record in both Ireland & Scotland. As the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement states, there can only be two future constitutional options for the north of Ireland; remaining part of the United Kingdom or reunification in a United Ireland. If the people choose the latter they will indeed be “excluding Britania” (sic). While this would mean political independence from Britain, it is certain strong economic & social links will largely remain.

  2. Not unless you want to be under a communist rule. And you might be sold into slavery again. Britain is a scum country and do not give two Shits about anyone but themselves. I still hold a grudge against them after all It has only been 248 years since we claimed independence. They are not trust worthy.

    1. Hi Paul, thank you for your contribution. A few points to consider:

      1. Britain is not a communist country.
      2. Joining the British Commonwealth (which the article clearly states is not a good idea) does not mean the Irish will be “sold into slavery”.
      3. Britain is not a “scum country”. Many good people in Britain, this includes but not limited to, Irish born & Irish Diaspora. Ever listened to The Pogues?
      4. They “do not give two shits about anyone but themselves.” Well maybe, Britain will act in its own self interest. All countries do that.
      5. As you say it’s “been 248 years since we claimed independence.” Yep, and it’s a done deal here in the U.S. maybe time to move on?
      6. “They are not trustworthy.” The British political elites & media are often untrustworthy. Many Irish people would agree. This was highlighted again recently during the Brexit fiasco.

      Again, thank you for your contribution.

  3. An interesting piece and quite a bit to get through. Your conclusions are as I would expect. When I read this I realise that there’s a very complex process ahead. Unionism will obstruct at all costs.

    I don’t see any merit in joining the commonwealth.

    1. Hi Donal,
      Thank you for your response. We are in agreement. Yes, “there’s a very complex process ahead”, constitutional change is never easy. Yes, “Unionism will obstruct” and that is their prerogative. Yes, I also do not see “any merit in joining the commonwealth.”.

  4. I don’t believe that in the event of a united Ireland the idea of Ireland joining the Commonwealth would be high on the settlement proposal for many… As stated in the section 3 of this report, I believe this proposal would be very devisive and would split a lot of the Nationalist population, for me it’s a non runner!

    1. Hi Terence, thank you for your response. We are in agreement. The idea of Ireland as a nation joining the British Commonwealth is not something that should be considered; it would prove too divisive within the nationalist voter base. But we can be generous & create the constitutional space to recognize the rights of British unionists living in a unitary state to be part of the British Commonwealth. Therin lies the work for nationalists.

  5. This article entails a realistic proposal/solution, which a lot of the discussions on a UI don’t often mention, but SHOULD mention to make such discussions more appealing to Unionists. How exactly this would work or could be achieved would require a more in-depth, technical discussion, but what I have concluded from this and all other discussions on a UI is that whatever happens, Ireland will not be able to entirely do this on its own and some cooperation and input from any British administration will be required.

    1. Hi Michael, thank you for your response.
      Some very well informed folks are suggesting Ireland joining the Commonwealth as a nation. As stated in the article there is a way to accommodate this idea if Unionism ever makes the request, but joining as a nation my not be the way to do it. I would agree diplomatic co-operation and governmental level conversations with Britain will be required to facilitate such arrangements. For example, it is obviously not within the Irish governments remit to offer British citizenship. That is a matter for the British government. So conversations and agreement will have to be found on a range of matters, including pensions, NI’s portion of UK national debt, NI’s portion of British assets, the subvention etc. These conversations will happen at the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference.

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