By Colin Gannon
Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth is “not on the agenda,” Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said, after the proposal was applauded by delegates at Fine Gael’s national conference last week.
Some party members in attendance applauded a statement from Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP MP, after he told the event in Wexford last week that he hoped Ireland would one day join the group of former British Empire territories.
The Republic of Ireland was a member of the Commonwealth until April 1949 when The Republic of Ireland Act 1948, came into force, severing all formal ties with the British Crown.
“I do hope we can come to a day when the Republic of Ireland will join with many other nations in the Commonwealth of nations and recognising, whatever our history, and whatever differences there have been in the past, that we’ve overcome a lot of diversity in the past in dealing with those issues, and I think it would be good in dealing with that,” Mr Donaldson said in his speech.
“The Commonwealth is a place where Ireland’s voice should be heard and I would like to see that happen.”
He added: “There is no ulterior motive in unionism that says we can use Brexit to prevent this or prevent that, in terms of increased, enhanced cooperation in our common good.”
The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, told The Week in Politics on RTÉ One that the government had not given “any consideration” to joining the organisation.
Varadkar told those in attendance it was “not something that’s on the agenda” and that Ireland would use the Good Friday agreement to maintain relations. He said he believes Ireland could “re-empower and boost” the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, such as the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the British Irish Council.
Mr Coveney said that there is support in Fine Gael to look “anew at the Commonwealth” but that it’s not at a “majority support at this stage”.
Coveney claimed that the applause from the audience was people simply wanting to show Donaldson “some warmth”.
Some within the Fine Gael party have been making a case for Ireland to join the Commonwealth, Coveney added. Frank Feighan, for instance, a Fine Gael senator, has repeatedly called on Ireland to consider joining the 53 Commonwealth countries.
The event, hosted by Young Fine Gael, brought Donaldson as well as Alliance Party leader Naomi Long and SDLP MLA Claire Hanna to discuss north-south relations.
Neale Richmond, the Fine Gael senator, said on Twitter that there would be “huge merit” in Ireland joining the Commonwealth after Brexit.
Conversely, Michael McGrath, Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesman, said: “It is a vestige of the British Empire. The head of the Commonwealth is the Queen”.
“I don’t see any circumstances in which our Irish Republic would willingly sign up to that. But clearly there are a lot of people in Fine Gael who would”.
Following the conference, Fine Gael politicians rebuked journalists on social media after they reported that delegates had applauded the remarks.
Chris Hazzard, the Sinn Fein MP, said: “The same Fine Gael who tell northern nationalists that talking about reuniting our country is like “pouring petrol on a fire” are cheering the prospect of Ireland rejoining the British Commonwealth.”
Last year, Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, she is open to discussions on Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth.
McDonald said there must be an open debate in order to encourage unionists to participate in a discussion about a united Ireland.
“You can hardly make that call and then say ‘we are not going to discuss any particular item’. And there are some people who think that rejoining the Commonwealth is a worthy proposition,” she said.
“I think those that hold that view need to put that view forward, and I think it needs to be looked at, and debated, and it needs to be discussed.”