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24 July 2007 : Column 238WH—continued

However, I think that the historians are wrong: at that time, the Commonwealth, to the extent that it existed, was nothing like the Commonwealth of today. Its only sovereign, independent states in April 1949 were Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, apart from Ireland. The Commonwealth of the time bore no relationship to that of today. There is also the backdrop: at the time, all but Eire had been involved in
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what was then the recent second world war. Relations between not only Ireland and the United Kingdom, but those other states were still somewhat fraught—something epitomised by the exchanges of Winston Churchill and Eamon De Valera in their two great broadcasts of May 1945.

However, things have moved on, and I raise this matter today in that spirit. It is also important to remember that, paradoxically, some of the great Irish statesmen have contributed to the modern Commonwealth. One is Eamon De Valera, who in 1921 came up with the concept of external association. At the time, the British Government could not get their heads around the idea that a state could be associated with those other states, with their historic ties and traditions, and yet be a republic. Valera’s document No. 2 in the treaty negotiations of 1921 was spurned and rejected.

However, it came alive again five days after the Republic of Ireland was inaugurated by Taoiseach Costello in April 1949, because on 22, 25 and 26 April that year, the Prime Ministers of the remaining countries of what was then called the Commonwealth agreed that in 1950 Pandit Nehru could bring his newly independent India into the Commonwealth as its first republic.

De Valera’s concept of external association was adopted, but unfortunately those dealing with relations with Ireland could not get their heads around the idea that that formulation for India should have been triggered for Ireland in 1948-49. The rest is history; as I have said, the majority of Commonwealth countries take advantage of the concept and are republics within the Commonwealth.

I have mentioned Eamon De Valera, but his adversaries in the Irish domestic situation also contributed greatly to the modern Commonwealth. I refer particularly to Desmond Fitzgerald—father of Garret Fitzgerald—Kevin O’Higgins and Patrick McGilligan. In the dominion conferences of the ’20s and ’30s—after the creation of the Irish Free State and with the support of W.T. Cosgrave, the Free State Premier—those men tried to stretch the envelope of their independence and enthusiastically interested the other countries in doing so.

The Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921 stated that the Irish Free State would have the same status as Canada’s. That was seized by the plenipotentiaries who signed that treaty, but they went on to try to increase and build on it. They argued and persuaded Canada and Australia to seek greater independence; that was reflected in legislation such as the Royal and Parliamentary Titles Act 1927. However, the culmination was the Statute of Westminster 1931, which is still the cornerstone of the independence of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many other countries.

When Eamon De Valera came into office in 1932, he was able to abolish the oath. On the occasion of the abdication, he was able to alter the Irish Free State’s head of state position—he did away with the post of Governor-General, created the office of President, and moved things on a ratchet towards a republic, which he desired and for which he had a mandate. He also introduced the Executive Authority (External Relations) Act 1936, which reduced the role of the monarch to a residual one, by which diplomatic representation was notionally done through the King and the signing of treaties. In every other respect, Ireland had moved to being a republic, although it was not declared as such.

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I have given that history because when we come to 1948-49 there was the apparent breach that I mentioned. As I said, the formula extended to Pandit Nehru was unfortunately not extended to, offered to or taken up by Ireland, although in retrospect it should have been. I do not think that it is too late for that to happen.

It is also interesting that Clement Attlee was somewhat exercised by the Taoiseach Costello declaration. However, he had the good counsel of the Canadian External Affairs Minister, the great Lester Pearson, and that of Prime Ministers Chifley of Australia and Fraser of New Zealand. My predecessor, the late, great Hugh Delargy, MP for Thurrock, helped persuade the British Government to pass the Ireland Act 1949, which decided not to treat Irish men and women as aliens, but to give them special status, which they enjoy today. I should say in parenthesis that as a consequence, many Members of this House of Commons hold Irish citizenship or are entitled to; some Ministers do, I think.

A special relationship was created, anyway, but the terminology was not such that that Ireland was in the Commonwealth and, as I have said, that was followed by non-attendance at Commonwealth councils, at CHOGM and so on, which I regret. It should have been, as the spirit was that the franchise was as available to people of the Republic of Ireland as it was to citizens of the United Kingdom.

By the mid-1950s, Ireland had joined the United Nations under External Affairs Minister Frank Aiken and since then it has not only been a great player in the United Nations but has been great friends of the Secretary-General, particularly using its small but highly skilled armed forces in the delicate matter of peace operations. It has contributed enormously to that, and I mention it because part of the role of the Commonwealth is peace, conflict prevention, keeping potential adversaries apart and trying to keep safety. Of course, Ireland has had a distinguished role in the European Union. It has held the presidency very successfully on a number of occasions. Ireland has a small population, but with great professionalism it punches above its weight in the United Nations, the European Union and many other councils. The missing element in my view, to our disadvantage, is its lack of membership of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is run by a small secretariat. It is not the British Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth—it has not been the British Commonwealth for decades. Its secretary-general has never been drawn from the United Kingdom: the present one is a former and distinguished Foreign Minister of New Zealand. I hope and think that one day the natural supply for the role of secretary-general would be professional diplomats from the Irish Republic or even a retired Taoiseach who has done so much to bring peace in our islands and throughout the world.

What do I want from the debate? I trust that it will not be seen as presumptuous, but I hope that the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association might reflect on what I have said and extend invitations to members of the Oireachtas to any of its future conferences. It might also raise the issue in the international conference of the CPA. I hope that both the secretary-general of the CPA and the secretary-general of the Commonwealth, Don McKinnon, will also take on board some of my remarks.

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I hope that the high commissioners in London of the Commonwealth countries, particularly those of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, because of their historic role and because so many of their fellow countrymen and women are part of the Irish diaspora—the Irish diaspora are in every corner of the Commonwealth, playing a full part in business commerce and public life—will reflect on what I have said. I hope that the Irish embassy in London will reflect on what I have said. I hope that it will not be too presumptuous to ask the Minister if—if I can persuade him that I have a case— to refer the matter to our Prime Minister. We are in a new era of relationships. I do not say that this should come about because of the Good Friday agreement and the success of 8 May this year, with the new dispensation for north and south, Catholic and Protestant, republican and Unionist. The time is right for Ireland to take its place in the club in which it has not taken up its seat.

This case needs to be remedied. I hope that those countries that are not independent sovereign states in the Commonwealth, such as our friends in the Isle of Man, might discuss the matter in their legislatures. At least they can use their good offices to invite, particularly the Isle of Man, which shares the Celtic, Viking heritage of the Republic of Ireland and whose language was rescued by Eamon De Valera in the early 1950s. I hope that everyone will reflect on the point.

This is not the first time that I have raised this point. I raised it with a Minister a long time ago—not this Minister. That Minister was a mediocre one, who pompously said, “It is a matter for the Irish Republic to apply.” That made me very cross, and still does today. I know that we will get a different response, however. One of the things that all organisations do—it does not matter if they are the Boy Scouts, the Townswomen’s Guilds, the Reform Club or a workingmen’s club—is to extend invitations to people who they think can contribute and whose presence would be valuable. They do it as a way of extending to those people their respect for them. That is why I think that an invitation should be extended to the Irish Republic.

There might be a residual one or two people who do not think that such an invitation ought not to come from the United Kingdom. So be it. Let this Minister say that he will work with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Caribbean countries and the countries around the world to see whether they should take the initiative of inviting the Irish Republic to take its natural place in the Commonwealth of nations.

1.45 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): I am delighted to appear before you, Mr. Hood, for the second time today on a matter of great importance to the House. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) not only on securing the debate, but, more significantly, on the way in which he made his case.

My hon. Friend will remember that he and I shared a portakabin, which masqueraded as an office, on the roof of the Palace of Westminster for five years. We spent many a long evening—

Andrew Mackinlay: You’ve done better than me, though. [Laughter.]

Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order.

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Mr. Murphy: We spent many long evenings talking about many different issues. If only I had known about my hon. Friend’s interest in and passion for this subject, it would have saved us a huge number of other less riveting debates and conversations on which we were unable to find any great unanimity.

My hon. Friend’s comments encourage me finally to get round to reading a book that I bought some time ago, an Attlee book. I think its proper title is “Empire into Commonwealth”. My hon. Friend referred to Clem Attlee, and I shall undertake to read it over the summer recess. Whether it will make me less or more mediocre, I am uncertain, but I shall read that work of Attlee’s.

My hon. Friend was right to refer to the fact that many Members owe some affection to Ireland. I remember growing up and thinking about whether I would play international football for Scotland or Ireland; I then realised that it was not an issue of nationality but a rank failure of any ability that meant that I was incapable of playing for either of those two great nations.

I should start by formally putting on the record Her Majesty’s Government’s welcome to the new ambassador to the United Kingdom from Ireland, Mr. David Cooney, who started work yesterday, I believe. I look forward to meeting him and discussing the many different issues that commonly concern us.

I offer my next observation with a sense of great trepidation. My notes say that I should say, first of all, that it is of course for the Government of Ireland to decide whether or not they wish to join the Commonwealth. That was a prophetically drafted first sentence. However, perhaps I could add an additional comfort for my hon. Friend that although it is not for the UK to invite a new member to the Commonwealth, as he implicitly acknowledged when he said that at one time it was Britain’s Commonwealth but that it is now a collection of states that share a common sense of values, the Prime Minister will discuss possible new membership criteria for the Commonwealth with his fellow heads of Government at the next CHOGM. That might offer some hope to my hon. Friend, although I understand that it does not capture the kind of thing that he is talking about. It is largely about whether there is consensus on the sort of membership criteria that allow countries without a constitutional link, such as Rwanda and others, to apply to join the Commonwealth.

Let me set out some of the areas where we have close co-operation with Ireland while it remains outside the Commonwealth, and say a few more words about that. My hon. Friend is right that there was a degree of excitement and speculation about possible Irish membership of the Commonwealth after the recent visit by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I do not know whether the Irish Government intend to join the Commonwealth, or even whether they are considering that step. Nothing that I have seen or read suggests that to be the case.

As he said, Ireland left the Commonwealth in the 1940s because it wanted to make a decisive break with Britain’s colonial past. India faced a similar choice but took an entirely different route. As a result, the modern Commonwealth was born. The UK understands the motivations of both countries in taking those decisions, but, now as then, they must themselves decide on their relationships with the Commonwealth. I hope today to show that, since that decision to leave in the 1940s,
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Ireland, the Commonwealth and the UK’s relationship with both have evolved and improved.

The Commonwealth would find the Ireland of today not just prosperous but booming, with an economy and a culture that is the envy of many. That is clear to any of us who visit Ireland on official visits, although I have not had the opportunity to do so recently, or who go to Donegal, as many of us do and as I do in my annual holiday. Over the years, the transformation of that part of Ireland has been remarkable and is emblematic of the transformation that continues across Ireland.

Equally Ireland, in its assessment of the Commonwealth, would share my hon. Friend’s perception that it has changed unrecognisably. It has come of age based on values, not on some historical relationship. Ireland would be unlikely to see any traces of colonialism and would instead see a modern, vibrant and international organisation, as he eloquently said.

Many nations are keen to join the Commonwealth, because it brings together states because of who they are, not what they want. It spans divides of wealth and size, as my hon. Friend said, and its members share a cultural and emotional bond and strong people-to-people links. More than 80 Commonwealth organisations link groups of people such as nurses, young people, lawyers and many others. The Commonwealth gives all its members an equal voice and, as he alluded to, is a unique forum in which to be heard. It is a forum where Asia and Africa can meet and learn from each other, where small island states have as much influence as anyone else and where developed and developing countries and emerging powers such as India can find common ground. Its members span all five continents and are all committed to the democratic values set out in the Harare declaration. Tolerance, justice and democracy are the Commonwealth’s guiding principles, and it keeps to them, suspending members who fail to respect Commonwealth values.

We have a unique relationship with Ireland, based on our shared history. Were it to happen, Irish membership of the Commonwealth would provide a new context for that relationship.

Andrew Mackinlay: I assume that the answer to this question will be “yes”. Would my hon. Friend the Minister welcome Ireland’s interest in returning to the Commonwealth, or taking up its seat in the Commonwealth, as I do not actually accept that it left?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend successfully had a guess at my response. If Ireland were to choose to apply to join the Commonwealth, it would have much to contribute in the ways that he has said: its skill and expertise in diplomatic arenas and the way in which it is outward-facing and has so much to contribute, as it has shown over many years. I know that he would expect me to add the comment that it is not for the UK to initiate an application, it is for Ireland itself to come to a decision if it chooses to do so.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am sorry to be a nuisance, but I said that I hoped my hon. Friend would discuss the matter with Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other players in the Commonwealth, because it might be appropriate for them to take the initiative.

Mr. Murphy: Of course that may be appropriate. My hon. Friend is not being a nuisance; having spent five
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years with him on that rooftop I can say that on some occasions he was a nuisance, but not today. But in trying to offer him hope on that specific point I say to him that, if Ireland were to make an application, we would of course enter into discussions and debate about specifics, timings and so on.

My hon. Friend’s introductory comments were fascinating. We have all listened to hundreds of speeches in the House, and I know that my hon. Friend does not welcome false praise, but his speech was one of the most interesting that I have had the opportunity to listen to in the past four or five years. I hope that he takes that in the spirit in which I offer it.

On our close co-operation, there has been landmark progress in Northern Ireland, as we all know, which has led to the re-establishment of the devolved Executive there. I remember watching the rugby match at Croke Park between England and Ireland and cheering—I shall not say who for, but it was a good afternoon’s rugby—and witnessing a Taoiseach address both Houses of Parliament for the first time ever earlier this year. I agree completely with the Taoiseach’s words in that address that

We now have an effective relationship with Ireland, both bilaterally through the institutions of the Belfast agreement, including the British-Irish Council, and internationally, notably through the EU and the UN, as my hon. Friend said.

The UK and Ireland recognise that in an ever more connected world, being active internationally is the best option for shared prosperity and progress on the global stage. If Ireland decided to join the Commonwealth, it would find a forum to discuss and pursue issues of international development, trade and climate change without the traditional north-south fault lines that have characterised so many conversations in the past. Ireland would have an enormous amount to contribute to those conversations.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, the Commonwealth is a modern organisation that provides the UK and all its members, on an equal basis, with the opportunity to find common solutions to common problems. Contrary to some assertions, it is far from seeing itself as a rival to the EU. That is an important point. In fact, both organisations are engaged in common work in Africa, for example, and hope to extend that joint work further. The UK, like Cyprus and Malta, finds membership of both organisations valuable.

We welcome our international co-operation with Ireland and look forward to even greater engagement in the coming years on global issues of concern to all our peoples. While I cannot offer my hon. Friend the specific good news that he wishes for, everyone in the House knows how dogged and determined he can be. Ministers sometimes welcome it and occasionally they welcome it a little less, but dogged and determined he is, and often successful. The only suggestion that I make to him is that, having raised the issue here in the House, he raises it with the many good friends that he undoubtedly has in Ireland. It is in Ireland that any application to join the Commonwealth must originate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Two o’clock.

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