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My central point, however, picks up on something that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said earlier about the Irish Republic. Some hon. Members have said that Madagascar should join the Commonwealth, and I am one of those looking forward to Pakistan’s
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return to the fold, but the great country of Ireland was one of the members of the original organisation and many Irish statesman contributed to what is now our modern Commonwealth.

I did not want to interrupt the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) earlier, but it is worth remembering that, although the Queen is head of the Commonwealth, the overwhelming majority of member countries are republics. That is significant when it comes to inviting Ireland to rejoin and fill its empty chair. The Queen is the Head of State for some Commonwealth countries, but that should not be confused with her status as head of the Commonwealth.

Who was the architect of that concept? Amazingly, it was Eamon de Valera. People often forget that he had the idea of countries belonging to an external association within the empire. His “Document No. 2” of 1921 made it clear that he was prepared to accept George V as the head of that association, but that he wanted Ireland to be a republic. That idea was subsequently swept aside. The Costello Government finally took Ireland out of the Commonwealth in 1948—the relevant legislation came into force in 1949—but it was in that period that the Indian Republic was accommodated and invited to enter the Commonwealth for the first time. Most Commonwealth states are republics, so it is clear that Eamon de Valera’s concept of a family of nations was prophetic. The Commonwealth that ultimately emerged did not belong to Britain; it was mutually shared and owned by its members, exactly as de Valera had envisaged.

In the Irish Free State of the 1920s and 1930s, Patrick McGilligan, the external affairs Minister, Desmond FitzGerald, the father of Garret FitzGerald, and Kevin O’Higgins were responsible for driving much of the business of the Dominion Prime Ministers conferences of the period. They were the architects of what became known as the statute of Westminster, in which the charters of independence for Australia, New Zealand and the other countries that maintain the monarchical tradition have their roots.

The people who negotiated Dominion status in 1921 and 1922 were rooted in Ireland’s republican tradition, and they helped to forge so much of today’s Commonwealth tradition. When the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) rightly referred to the Anzac contribution in two world wars and other conflicts, I could not help but reflect on the fact that many of the people in the British armed forces who fought for our freedom were drawn from what we know nowadays as the Irish Republic. Indeed, if we look at the wall behind the Serjeant at Arms, we can see the red crest of Willie Redmond—a Member of the House of Commons and the oldest British officer killed on the western front. He was a proud patriot and an Irish nationalist, but he is remembered here. He represents thousands of others who fought in our armed forces, even in what is known in Ireland as the emergency—world war two—when about 50,000 Irish people were in our armed forces and merchant marine. The Irish are everywhere in the old Commonwealth and other parts of it; the Irish tradition is everywhere.

I am disappointed that in the past 11 years neither the Major Government nor the Labour Government realised that we should address the wrong that is Ireland’s omission from the Commonwealth. The reply from successive Governments to my parliamentary
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questions has been that it is for Ireland to apply. That is disingenuous; it is not fraternal. We should tell Ireland that we want it to occupy the chair that it vacated. The best way to achieve that would be for the Prime Ministers of some of the big players, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Jamaica, to take the initiative with the Taoiseach. They should say, “This is no longer the British Commonwealth. Of course, its genesis is in our common history, but now it is a mutual society of nations owned by Australia, Jamaica, South Africa and many other African states, the Republic of India and the Republic of Pakistan, when its suspension is over. It is ours, why don’t you join us?”

Why do I want Ireland in the Commonwealth? The Irish Republic has a proud record of internationalism. It is one of the first countries the UN Secretary-General calls on for quality peacekeeping troops. They have no imperial baggage, and he can rely on them. The Irish punch above their numerical weight in the European Union, where they are highly regarded. Ireland will probably provide the first president of the European Union—perhaps to the disappointment of some people in London.

Ireland is a big player, but the one international organisation in which it does not participate is the Commonwealth. We have discussed the structures of the Commonwealth, but I would like to see an Irish team at the Commonwealth games, which is a rich festival of sport and, after the Olympics, one of the most important international sporting events.

Irish membership of the Commonwealth would be a small but not insignificant factor in the positive developments in the island of Ireland over the past 12 months. It would be a further contributory factor to cover differences in traditions that have caused aggravation, but in which people also find their common identity. A small number of people in the Irish Republic identify with UK Britishness, which they cannot currently express. When I raised the subject in a Westminster Hall debate, I received letters from people in the Irish Republic who cannot have read my contribution, because they believe that the Commonwealth is the British Commonwealth. If anyone reading Hansard should trespass on my remarks today, I emphasise the point that the Commonwealth is not the British Commonwealth; it is owned by all the other states, the majority of which are republics.

We should take the initiative at CHOGM and discuss with other members whether Ireland’s chair, which has been vacant since 1948, could be occupied once more. Actually, I do not think that Ireland left; it has been left in a sort of halfway house, because when the Costello Government declared the Irish Republic in 1948-49, this House enacted legislation that said that all citizens of the Irish Republic had citizenship rights equal to those of people from the United Kingdom, could stand for election to local authorities and to Parliament, and could take ministerial office. A number of people who identified themselves as Irish have served in that capacity in this place. That was the precursor to the concept of Irish people being Commonwealth citizens, because the concept did not exist at that stage.

Our franchise is extended to United Kingdom people, citizens of the Irish Republic and Commonwealth citizens, who have the full franchise here and can be elected to the House—I believe that Commonwealth citizens have been Ministers. I urge the Minister to go back to the
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Foreign and Commonwealth Office and ask for a proper brief. If she were to ask, “Is anything in the historical record that Mackinlay outlined incorrect?” the answer would be no—what I have said is absolutely correct, because I have spent some time studying the subject. I think that she will conclude that it is appropriate for the Prime Minister to discuss the issue with the other Commonwealth Prime Ministers and Heads of Government to see whether the situation can be remedied.

4.16 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): The personal connections that have been mentioned in the debate have, in some cases, been very moving. The advantage of having such a lengthy debate is that we can reveal a lot more than we normally do. I welcome the debate, in which particularly moving speeches have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) and the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who gave an interesting account of Sierra Leone. I shall refer to Rwanda later, and we shall see some similarities.

First, may I say how proud I am of my connections with the Commonwealth? I was the sponsor Minister for Manchester and Salford in the mid-1990s, when John Major took the decision to back the Commonwealth games in Manchester. I am proud that a Conservative Government did that. I know that the games took place under the Labour Government, but John Major’s decision to put the Government four-square behind them was the clinching factor in their coming to Manchester, and what a fantastic success they were, both for Manchester and the Commonwealth. I remember the extraordinary work by Frances Done, who did a great job on the administration, Robert Hough and, of course, the extraordinary Howard Bernstein—he is now Sir Howard Bernstein, partly as a result of work on the games.

It is appropriate that the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) is here, because I want to mention our long association with South Africa, which began in the dark days when South Africa was not a member of the Commonwealth. In 1986, we stood shoulder to shoulder at a demonstration in Crossroads, just before the tear gas started, and we returned many times in subsequent years. It was a great joy to us when the efforts of so many friends with whom we worked over the years—people who were struggling for peaceful change and reconciliation—came to fruition. One of the significant effects of the change in South Africa was, of course, to bring it back into the fold as a Commonwealth country. We were both at the first Commonwealth service held after the country came back into the fold. I am sure that the memories of those days and our friends in South Africa are as vivid to him as they are to me.

This year, my wife and I are looking forward to celebrating our 25th wedding anniversary in Ghana, where we will build houses with Habitat for Humanity, a terrific Christian-based charity that has done tremendous work providing houses all over the world. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey will know about that from his constituency work, because like me, he is on the board of patrons of Habitat for Humanity Great Britain. I am very much looking forward to going to Ghana, as I have not been to west Africa.

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Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I encourage the hon. Gentleman, when he goes to Ghana, to check out the work of Cadbury. Ghana produces more cocoa for Cadbury than any other country in the world. I know that the company is very proud of its work in Ghana, particularly the work it is doing to promote local projects, and specifically development projects. I encourage him to pop along and see that company. Who knows, Cadbury might be willing to support him and some of the interests that he is active in?

Alistair Burt: I thank the hon. Lady most sincerely for that suggestion. I am sure that in west Africa a day without chocolate would be like a day without sunshine. I shall certainly take her up on that offer. If Cadbury is not familiar with the work of Habitat for Humanity, I would certainly be keen to introduce the company to it.

As has been mentioned by many hon. Members, the significance of the Commonwealth is too often overlooked. It is possible that too many people in this country did not notice that 10 March was Commonwealth day. I want to make one or two remarks about the unique status of the Commonwealth, its growth and the role that I would like it to play in development in the future.

There are many references in newspapers and periodicals to its being fashionable in this country to criticise the Commonwealth and to see it as an organisation that is inherently anti-British and institutionally ineffective. It rather reminds me of the old joke about the bloke who goes into a hardware shop to ask for a particular sort of light bulb only to be told by the harassed shopkeeper, “You’re the 20th person we’ve told today: there’s no demand for it.” We constantly say that the Commonwealth is undervalued, yet here we are talking about its life and vibrancy. Everywhere we go, we know that people are well aware that the Commonwealth is more than alive and well. It is not in any way a declining institution.

Perhaps we see the Commonwealth in a particular way in this country, but when one travels abroad, one sees how much it is welcomed. It is a little like the EU. We can be keen to criticise in the UK, but it is possible to see how important the EU is in the Balkans in providing a framework to settle the conflicts in a region that has been beset by them for too long.

I do not buy the idea of the Commonwealth as a declining institution. I am proud of its history, its origins and what it provides today. Colleagues have mentioned the unique aspects of the Commonwealth. It has 53 member nations, representing nearly 2 billion people in a vast, diverse grouping that transcends the north-south divide, a feat that can be matched only by the UN. It puts the rich countries, such as the UK, Australia and Canada, into contact with poorer nations in order to share best business practice and technology and to assist developing countries. It does so not out of pure economic or geographical interest, but out of a sense of relationship, which is so important in world politics. We see so many things happen in the world that are based purely on transaction and on “What’s in it for me? What’s in it for you? Let’s do something together only if that is the relationship that we have.” If there is something deeper—in the Commonwealth, there is—it means much more.

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That sense of relationship will be of great importance in a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on power blocs—a world of shrinking resources and potential global conflict. Whether it is the EU, north America or in terms of the increasing power of China, the world blocs are coming together. Something like the Commonwealth, which straddles those blocs, will be incredibly important in the future.

It is that backdrop that has made the Commonwealth’s role in conflict resolution so important. We have discussed Kenya and the successes there and the worries about Zimbabwe, but let us not forget Sri Lanka, Kashmir and Cyprus. They are places where the Commonwealth can and should still have a role to play, using its unique background to try to deal with conflict resolution.

For a declining organisation, the Commonwealth has a remarkable number of people who want to join it, and that has to be the key test of a thriving group of people. Other colleagues have mentioned the fact that more countries that do not have a link to the old countries want to join. Mozambique has been mentioned. I want to talk a little about Rwanda, and say how much I welcome its application to join the Commonwealth, which has every prospect of success.

I and some 43 colleagues from the Conservative party—including eight Members of Parliament, among whom were my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) and my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Mitchell), who organised the visit—went to Rwanda last summer on the largest international development programme ever devised by a political party in the United Kingdom. We were proud to do so, and we followed in the footsteps of other volunteers working overseas. We pay tribute to all those who do such work all over the world. We were working on projects with the support and backing of the Rwandan Government through the relationship with President Paul Kagame—a relationship that has been fostered by the present Government. We are the biggest international donor to Rwanda, and this country has a terrific relationship with Rwanda, which was much needed. The fact that it is a consensual relationship on both sides of the House is of great importance.

We followed a whole variety of projects. Work was done in rebuilding and renovating a school and an orphanage. We made sure that the projects were sustainable and had a legacy. We set up twinning with schools, and colleagues worked in Ministers’ offices and in local government. There was a concentration on health. The remarkable Dr. David Tibbutt, a member of one of the teams working there—he is also the Worcester city council cabinet member for urban renaissance and a wonderful doctor—described the work that he was doing as follows:

So we worked on health care and health projects in rural and city areas, and we of course looked at the legacy of genocide. The whole modern history of Rwanda is tainted by the genocide of 1994, and yet enriched by the extraordinary recovery in that country. The hon. Member for Crosby spoke about the recovery taking place in Sierra Leone from involvement in the civil war, and how forgiving some communities had been in the most difficult of circumstances. That characteristic has also been part of Rwanda’s recovery, and it is an extraordinary lesson for us.

We looked at the work of the gacaca courts and how communities have come to terms with what happened in Rwanda. We should remember that one tenth of a population of 10 million people were victims of the genocide. A civil court system cannot deal with all this, so it has been done through local community courts. The shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), put it this way when he went to see this work:

This sense of forgiveness and tolerance, in the most difficult of circumstances that none of us here can possibly truly comprehend, is the hallmark of what Rwanda is doing. It is still a poor country, but it is getting somewhere.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am listening to the hon. Gentleman with great interest. He spoke about volunteer groups in Rwanda working on health projects, and he made a passing comment about school twinning. Will he take the opportunity to congratulate the British Council on the number of twinning projects that it has established between Rwanda and schools in the UK, and in other countries in Africa? Will he also congratulate all the British citizens, including some of my own constituents, who are working on valuable health projects in Rwanda?

Alistair Burt: Absolutely. The British Council does fantastic work overseas, as more than one colleague has mentioned during the debate. We all recognise the need to deal with what is happening overseas, but only when we go there and see the scale of the difficulties do we realise that we should be doing more. When we introduce children to the problems that their brothers and sisters are experiencing around the world, that can be incredibly powerful.

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