Ireland, the Commonwealth and history

In an Irish Times article headlined , Historical amnesia is not a sign of maturity John Waters argues strongly against the idea of the Republic joining the Commonwealth, a fairly easy Aunt Sally, you would have thought. (Waters can be forgiven for failing to keep up with the forms of Commonwealth terminology; the term “British” has been dropped now for at least a quarter of a century). But irrelevance is not as you might expect the preferred reason for spurning the notion. Rather, Waters cites as the main reason that the Commonwealth

remains also the embodiment of what our forefathers spilled an ocean of their blood trying to escape.

Weren’t “oceans of blood “ spilled in say India and Kenya who joined and largely define the modern very shadowy Commonwealth? And if blood is the arbiter, what about blood shed in a common cause by Australians, Canadians, Indians, Africans – and of course as we now commemorate, the Irish? If the others joined there must be more to it than “oceans of blood.”
Waters focuses on the Great Famine as one reason why the Republic could never rejoin (Dev scholars might insist on “ re-associate with ” the Commonwealth):

Twice this year, I have been involved in television programmes about the Great Famine, which have touched on the nature of Ireland’s historical relationship with Britain in a way that would have been impossible a few years ago. While the Provos were murdering people, we had to pretend that we were over it, that most of it never happened, or that, anyway, it was all a long time ago. Now, the political context for denial has been removed, we can state the facts baldly. We do not wish to do anything with these facts, but simply to record them again, after generations of shamed silence, so we know who we are.”

“Facts?” No one can possibly deny the figures , the horror or hold back entirely from blaming governments; that’s one of their functions. But context, wider blame, solutions?

In his collection of essays The Irish Story ( pub: 2001) Roy Foster tilts an Irish official memory of the past, “theme park history, ” a tourism commodity he clearly believes is unhealthy and a bit ridiculous. It’s important to stress that he does not mock honest passion and indeed anticipates his critics, who might have him claim that the Irish in the 1840s suffered from mass anorexia nervosa. He writes against official versions of commodified history like what he calls “Faminism.”

Traditionally, the Famine was seen at worse a deliberate policy of English genocide, at best wilful neglect by the British government – an interpretation boosted in the 1960s by that a great work of popular history by Cecil Woodham-Smith. Subsequent academic research tried to concentrate on the contemporary account of similar disasters and the current beliefs about government intervention, and to understand how such a horror could have happened rahtern than simply apportioning blame ( eg my comment the power of the rising class of Catholic landlords, anxious for clearances). But the effect of the commemoration year (or years) was to highlight the issues of guilt and pain, driven by the idea that some sort of empathy could be achieved, and a therapeutic catharsis brought about.

However Foster would I think agree with Walter’s contention that “For centuries we have been prevented from looking squarely at our history, first by the process of colonisation and more recently by the shame arising from the desecration of Irish nationhood by the Provisional IRA. The resolution of the Northern conflict has unexpectedly enabled us not only to engage at an emotional level with our history, but also to stop lying about it.”

.In the chapter “Theme Parks and Histories” Foster invokes (ps 34-36) the mainstream of Irish historical studies when he says that since 1994 “the Northern nightmare has receded .. we are no longer looking over the brink.. This relaxation has perhaps made people less conscious of the dangers of historical interpretation self-congratulations, tub-thumping, or professional victimhood ?

Foster is arguing for the complexities of history and against “imagining the past” in the light of a preferred version of what happened in support of national myths. This very nuanced position is firmly established by now, even as arguments over revisionism and re-revisionism continue. Foster remains open to distortion but he and many others have given up worrying about that. They too are liberated by the recession of the Troubles. Foster concludes the essay with a bit of mischief:

“ ..the next commemoration might take the form of raising a monument to Amnesia, and forgetting where we put it? Not entirely: as an historian I have to be rather shocked by the idea. But as an Irishman I am rather attracted by it.

I’ve no doubt that Water’s attitude would be endorsed by straw polls of the impassioned. But underneath the clamour I’m hopeful that what Patricia Craig calls “latitudinarianism ” is quietly coming through. Not that I’d worry too much about Ireland rejoining the Commonwealth. Such as it is, it will probably survive. Its most recent recruit was Mozambique sponsored for membership by Nelson Mandela and it had never been part of the British Empire.

  • blinding

    Blairs apology over the famine was a step in the right direction.
    But what is needed now is a comprehensive apology from the head of state,The Queen or whoever follows her.
    It will have to be done at some point so why not bite the bullet and get it over with.

  • Frank

    A question, can anyone tell me the benefit of been in the commonwealth, can I go and live in Australia or Canada? If I choose to pretend that I am British.

  • Ri Na Deise

    What the fcuk would we want to join the Commonwealth for? Whats in it for us like? Not a lot Id imagine.

    Yes we have strong trade links to Britain but whats wrong with them being just that?

    Why cant we just have free trade without having to ‘join a club’?

    Fcuk the UK,EU,CW,US etc. Fcuk all wrong with autonomous,indepent nations trading together without joining these umbrella imperialistic organisations.

  • Brian,

    I’d have thought the remark about being able to address the past now due to the peace process was aimed at people like Foster, in the sense that the time for that style of revisionism had passed. But maybe I am wrong.

  • I wonder whether the Commonwealth itself isn’t in need of revision.

    Why not have the position of head of the comonwealth rotate among thevarious heads of state rather than just one.

    I’m sure these guys would approve:

  • Jimmy Sands

    There is an argument that De Valera can be properly regarded as one of the chief architects of the modern Commonweath. And of course it was not his decision to leave it. It seems to me it may confer a number of benefits. One is that it draws a line under the knee-jerk anti-British responses which for some have served as a substitute for national identity and recognises those of our people who regard Britain with affection. It also serves the purpose of drawing us into a network of countries which is not dominated by the western developed powers and which in relation for example South Africa has shown itself to be a force for progress. If it is sufficiently attractive to countries such as Mozambique and Cameroon, never part of the British empire at all, there must be something in it.

  • Greenflag

    What’s all the fuss about ? Even the UI supporters must now realise that there are at least 900,000 and probably more on this island who regard the UK if not with total affection at least with some grudging regard for their contribution to the world.

    We can still be a Republic within the CW . Being in the CW doesn’t mean denying the Famine’s historical reality or stop further research into it’s causes , effects etc etc . – India lost 27 million people due to ‘market enforced’ famine at the behest of commercial and imperial interests both British and Indian .

    There has been another famine in recent decades this time all over the western world not restricted to CW countries and that is the gradual emisseration of the millions who have lost jobs in manufacturing and in related engineering and ancillary industries in particular in the USA and UK but also throughout the developed economies . Productivity increased by 18% in the USA over the period 2000 to 2006 yet the pay of the median worker increased by less than 2% . Where did all the extra loot go ? It went to the few at the top i.e those with the economic power . We are now faced with a spectacle in the USA where 35 million americans are on food stamps without which their children would go hungry and another 100 million have virtually zero net worth plus another 100 million who have seen their retirement pensions sink into the abyss .

    Of course it’s a long way from famine in the Irish and Indian sense but it’s all relative is’nt it ?

    Of course apologists for ‘red claw capitalism ‘ will make the point that people are paid by how society values their product or service or at least that’s the theory .

    Based on the ‘value ‘ produced by many of the movers and shakers on Wall St these past few moments I guess those still in jobs in the financial services sector are earning ‘negative ‘ salaries commensurate with their ‘production’ of worthless pieces of paper ?.

    Back to topic the CW could help our sports people compete better at the Olympics and also our educators .

  • Conchúr

    Exactly what is the purpose of the Commonwealth, seriously? What does it do? What political or economic function does it fulfil? The expression “tits on a bull comes to mind”. If it serves no real purpose other than to act as a nostaglia club, why even bother?

    Scratch that, it does have one purpose – to stage a pale, pale imitation of the Olympics, which is frankly rather embarrassing.

    As to why countries that were never part of the empire joining, you’d have to ask them as to their motivations, but I sincerely doubt it has to do with any affection for Britain but rather local political agendas eg. Rwanda joining to spite France.

    Rejoining would serve no useful purpose and only inflame atavistic passions on both sides of the political divide on the island. It is a pointless organisation that should have been sent to the glue factory long ago.

  • Henry94

    There isn’t a hope in hell of Ireland doing any such thing. The entire political and media establishment couldn’t sell us Lisbon. Does anyone seriously think they could get the Commonwealth through even if they wanted to.

    You wouldn’t get it through a Fine Gael Ard Fheis never mind a referendum.

  • Ronald Binge

    Of course we should join the Commonwealth and certainly in the context of a United Ireland, if it ever happens. No matter what our vocal army of armchair warriors suggest in any attempt to veto public discussion of this it will happen in that context. In any case we are virtual members anyway, with the Common Travel Area, the Council of the Isles, the British-Irish interparliamentary body and the many and varied social, media and sporting connections so even if we loudly wrap the Tricolour around ourselves politically a non-political common identity is already there.

  • ggn

    Ok, the Repbublic has revisionists, traditional and neo-unionism as as the President has said, they are entitled to it.

    However. I dont see the actual political estabishment and the majority of the Irish people to come out in favour of affecting Irish independence in such a fashion.

    Having said that, as an Ó Cadháinista, I would have my suspicions as the the viablity of long term support for Irish republicanism among the anglisced population.

    Nations are not economies, they ate historical cultural entities, if Ireland anglicises entirely to the extent that it is indistinguable from England, what chance independence?

    Could the Republic fall even before a united Ireland, or even as the result of it. What then? An Independent Northern Ireland and the Southern State back suckling at England’s breast?

  • HeadTheBall

    “…our forefathers spilled an ocean of their blood…”

    Hardly. A (semi) independent Ireland came about because of the actions of a handful of tearaways (Breen, Collins, Boland, et al) who, as their shining legacy, bequeathed us Partition. A poisoned chalice?

  • Dave

    I doubt that unionists such as Mr Walker who proffer this tripe do so as a means of preparing their tribe for unification with the Republic, even if that is the subtext. The subtext being that if the Irish removed that which offends the northern British nationalists (i.e. their Irishness) and made Ireland as British as Finchley, then northern British nationalists would feel right at home there (even if they’d be regarded as Paddies in Finchley) – as British as Ballymena, perhaps.

    Unionists always saw the Irish nation as a threat to their own selfish interests and they consistently opposed the right to that nation to self-determination. Their sense of loyalty to their own nation (the British) is based on suppressing Irish nationalism, and so the success of Irish nationalism represents a defeat for them. Ergo, they are keen to work the current dynamic of ‘parity of esteem’ as it applies within the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland as means by which the Irish nation outside of the jurisdiction of Northern Ireland is encouraged to censor its own nationalism, granting political and constitutional parity between British nationalism and Irish nationalism. They were a tad slow to catch onto this, given that British intelligence and Whitehall was signalling it as ‘the way forward’ for slightly over two decades.

    Now that those state agencies have manipulated the northern Irish nationalists into renouncing their own right to Irish national self-determination, accepting that it is now to be regarded as an aspiration that is subject to the veto of those whose claim to self-determination is legitimised and validated rather than disputed, those northern Irish nationalists can no longer argue that they have a right to live within an Irish nation-state and that another national group is depriving them of their (renounced) right. In effect, they conceded the principle, and thereby lost the argument. Now, of course, their future is entirely at the discretion of the northern British nationalists.

    Under those fundamentally changed rules, the northern Irish nationalists have to persuade the northern British nationalists that they would have the same power as a group when comprising circa 14% of an unpartitioned population as they would have as a group that currently comprises the majority of a partition Ireland and that the culture of Ireland would be changed to alter its (offending) Irishness and amend it to reflect a greater degree of (reassuring) Britishness. This presupposes that the citizens of the Republic of Ireland regard their nationalism as something that is disposable or alterable in a way that suits a bunch of grubby, touts and bigots, and that is what I will get to in a moment.

    Effectively, the northern Irish nationalists are not selling the virtues of the Irish nation-state to the northern British nationalists under outworking of the process that Whitehall has devised for them, but they are selling the virtues of the Britishness to the citizens of the Irish Republic, encouraging them to self-censor their nationalism and allow a British culture to emerge. The aim of removing the border then becomes, not an assertion of the right of northern Irish nationalists to national self-determination (for they have already renounced this right), but an extension of the British dimension of Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland – or, in other words, Northern Ireland will annex the Republic of Ireland so that the citizens of the Republic of Ireland may experience the joys of British nationalism.

    Now, returning to why none of attack on Irish nationalism is actually intended to result in a united Ireland and to why no intelligent northern British nationalists would seriously believe that it would: it’s quite simple, really, assuming that a majority of citizens of the Republic of Ireland were hoodwinked by a top-down political class and a supporting servile media into accepting the proposed b-national state, intelligent northern British nationalists will know that the situation would rapidly deteriorate as the Irish nation became frustrated by the reality of “rigorous impartiality” and began to the British nation among it as the cause of the problem. There will be ‘happy ever after’ here and no sensible northern British nationalist would ever embrace unity on that basis, as he would know what the awful consequences of it would be.
    There are two nations here with two competing claims to self-determination. They are not reconcilable. If they ever could have operated as one nation, then they would have joined the Irish nation a long time ago. There will be no vetoes imposed on the right of the Irish nation to self-determination and to free and full expression of its culture. For the sake of all concerned, I hope the mandarins in Whitehall who devised this outcome don’t have a last laugh, because that will be tragic for all concerned.

  • Dave

    By the way, to argue that the Republic of Ireland should join the British Commonwealth in order to appease a group of people who are not citizens of the Republic of Ireland has to be one to the stupidest ‘reasons’ ever advanced for a country to join an organisation. If Ireland wished to consider British citizens, then it should consider the interests of the 250,000 British people who have joined the Irish nation. None of them are promoting this crap as being nessessary to offer them some sort of qualitative psychological reassurance that their identity is respected in the Republic of Ireland. Next will be have the Lebanese, Syrians, etc, who live in Ireland asking that we join the Arab League of Nations as an associate member so that they too will feel special.

    Notably, those proffering that Republic of Ireland should join the British Commonwealth haven’t shown how it would be in Ireland’s economic interests to do so – probably because the vast majority of the them are northern British nationalists who wouldn’t be promoting membership it they actually beleived that the Republic of Ireland would benefit economically from joining it.

    The actual ‘reason’ is that they would enjoy the demeaning symbolism of it.

  • Dave

    “…to argue that the Republic of Ireland should join the British Commonwealth in order to appease a group of people who are not citizens of the Republic of Ireland has to be one to the stupidest ‘reasons’ ever advanced for a country to join an organisation.”

    To nip the pedantry in the bud: token citizenship doesn’t count. They are not domiciled in the Republic of Ireland and they have not contributed a single penny in taxation to its economic development.

  • pith

    “Scratch that, it does have one purpose – to stage a pale, pale imitation of the Olympics, which is frankly rather embarrassing.”

    Except in 1954 of course.

  • Whatever you say say nothing

    So, what’s coming through loud and clear is that for many nationalists there is no recognition possible even in the smallest way of unionist identity in a United Ireland. BTW, the Commonwealth hasn’t been the “British Commonwealth” since 1948 or so, but don’t let that get in the way of an imaginary dilution of Irish independence. So much for confidence building.

    What part of the new South Africa’s identity and independence was compromised by Mandela’s decision to rejoin the Commonwealth? The answer is of course none.

  • Dave

    Whatever you say say nothing, why don’t you do a survey of the 250,000 British people who have chosen to live within an Irish nation-state and ask them if they feel that absurd gestures are required to validate their identity? If they didn’t feel at home in Ireland, they wouldn’t have chosen to live there, would they?

    Go away and find something sensible to complain about.

  • Brian Walker

    Garibaldy, your point is fascinating: “I’d have thought the remark about being able to address the past now due to the peace process was aimed at people like Foster, in the sense that the time for that style of revisionism had passed.”

    Waters piece has echoes of Foster without addressing him so you may be right. You have to remember though that “revisionism” started in the 1930s as a natural process of writing history not as a deliberate corrective to national myths.

    The term “revisionism” was taken up almost as term of abuse and the relationship between the professional writing of history and national identity has always been unavoidable but uneasy. Historians won’t want to be reduced to the old zero sum game. Foster discusses the relationship in his essay “Leland Lyons and the reinterpretation of Irish history.” He cites one example: “In his lectures, “Culture and Anarchy”..(Lyons) had become increasingly conscious of the potential for abuse of history by polemicists. .. He was asked to sign a public letter opposing the (then current in the early 80s) proposal to re-introduce the death penalty for terrorist murders, on the ground it would create a new generation of Manchester or 1916 martyrs..”In a letter of characteristic laconic courtesy he refused, presenting the exact opposite argument: he f felt such an argument would give comfort to the Provisionals.”

    I think the point is that historians will continue to do their thing and a consensus of historical interpretation is no more likely after the Troubles than it was before them. However the acceptance of greater complexity all round and the greater inclusion of all sides of the Northern experience are two big factors which are likely to stick.

  • Zoonpol

    The Commonwealth club looks like a worthwhile group. I am more worried about how the Republic is treating minority groups today – as reported by the Irish Times. This could give rise to minority groups taking the State to the Human Right Courts of Justice.

  • You have really opened a can of worms here, Brian. I hardly know where to start in replying.

    I certainly think that Ireland’s history has been treated by British policians and historians as more than just a matter of colonization.

    During the 19th century, the liberals in both parties were trying to make Ireland a self-governing island with essentially British institutions.

    The biggest problem was getting Parliament to agree to laws which would have made it more like the rest of the UK, especially an Irish Poor Law which would have prevented the worst of the Famine. The Whigs largely did it to frustrate their drugged Lord Chancellor, Baron Brougham, from continuing his legislative program after he had been dragged off the Woolsack.

    Even when the Famine was unfolding, Brougham wanted to force Irish emigrants arriving at Liverpool back to Ireland in the hope that it would force Irish landlords, who he had exposed in a series of damning articles in The Times as its special commissioner, to clean up their act when it came to their precarious tenants.

    Then there was considerable efforts by Gladstone’s Liberals to give Parnell home-rule – what was frustrated by A. V. Dicey and The Times’ false campaign against the Irish leader as a mere mouthpiece of Clan na Gael and The Invincibles.

    This ruined the chance of establishing peacefully Irish self-rule.

    And in the process, it was instrumental in killing a really construtive role for The Commonwealth. It is a nearly moribund institution which should just be left to die.

    The UK and Ireland should be more invovled in making the EU a more effective set of institutions, especially in foreign policy and defense.

  • Baz está fresco em Vermont

    “The UK and Ireland should be more invovled in making the EU a more effective set of institutions, especially in foreign policy and defense.”

    As soon as you do external military operations, you can do internal,

    I’ll be at Manassas to defend Poland’s right to hang gay people escaping the cabbage plantations.

  • Brian,

    I do think and agree with you that Waters got what historians were doing wrong. He seems to me to be saying that we had to deny some of our history so as not to give comfort to terrorists. Now the terrorists have gone, we can re-embrace the reality of historical oppression. That is how I take his argument anyway. While some certainly were using revisionism for northern purposes, most historians were just getting on with their jobs, Foster included. Most revisionists never denied the traumatic dimensions of Irish history, but did seek to explain and contextualise them. Which seems fair enough to me. Like you I’m pleased to see we’ll be getting a more rounded view in future.

  • darth rumsfeld

    I’m so impressed by Dave’s multiple posting. Methinks the gent doth protest too much.

    I would want the Republic to rejoin the Commonwealth for its own benefit. There was a tradition of British Irishness which has little to do with the Ulster-Scot identity which the increasing ease of the south with -for example- commemoration of Remembrance Day.

    I think the international dimension of the Commonwealth is bound to benefit the Republic- especially since so many irishmen played key roles in many of the states that comprise it. Plus the Commonwealth games would allow the Irish sportsmen a rare opportunity win something

    It’s not that rejoining is on the shopping list of many Unionists pre-reunification- though as a wee tip to Dave and co, if you’re asking someone out on a date it’s usually clever to offer her something she’d like than just say she’s got to be yours.

    Could it really be that the revision of old attitudes, and a recognition that there was more to the Union than the jackboot of military oppression is a bit frightening for the eirigi minded out there?

  • George

    “The international dimension of the Commonwealth is bound to benefit the Republic”

    That’s a hell of a statement and one that is usually trotted out by people who haven’t a clue what the Commonwealth actually brings to the table.

    Care to back your statement up by showing how it has benefited others?

    Perhaps you could show how we are lagging behind in our trade to India in comparison to Commonwealth members?

    Perhaps you could show how Commonwealth membership has boosted trade between members?

    Maybe you could also show how Ireland’s absence from the Commonwealth for 60 years has restricted its own “international dimension”.

    In doing so, maybe you could explain why the businessmen and women of Northern Ireland haven’t been going on Commonwealth trade delegations to India in recent years but instead have been forced to tag along on the ones the internationally dimensionless Republic has organised and sent out.

    I also wouldn’t mind an answer as to why the business people of Northern Ireland looked to the Irish Republic when they wanted to forge better business links with Canada.

    You could also maybe show how many times NI businessmen and women have gone to Africa in a Commonwealth capacity and explain why this has achieved more than the huge delegation that went from the Republic earlier this year.

    I’ve asked this before on these Commonwealth threads and have yet to receive an answer: in what way has the Commonwealth benefited Northern Ireland in the last 60 years, economically, socially or culturally?

  • Brian Walker ,

    Your cheap shot at John Waters (“Waters can be forgiven for failing to keep up with the forms of Commonwealth terminology; the term “British” has been dropped now for at least a quarter of a century) is unworthy of you. You know well that the common appellation is ‘British Commonwealth’. Even unionists call it that – maybe especially unionists!

    Take a read of this crap, from self-styled ‘Revolutionary Unionist’ John Coulter, who (presumably) knows better:

    Jaw-droppingly stupid, but then what would you really expect from him.

  • pith

    Excellent, an excrementalist take on the matter from John Coulter.

  • pith

    He actually says this:

    “In fact, given the global banking crisis, the Brits need to go a step further and use the Commonwealth to re-launch the British Empire, especially in Africa.”

  • joeCanuck

    “excrementalist”. First time I’ve heard that word. Love it.

  • Brian Walker

    Horseman you say to me: “You know well that the common appellation is ‘British Commonwealth’. Even unionists call it that – maybe especially unionists!” No I don’t “know well”; it isn’t the “common appellation” any more than “Imperial” Parliament is for Westminster, whatever ” even” Unionists call it. I leave “cheap shots” to others I usually ignore (not you in this case). I would prefer to describe Mr Coulter as mildly eccentric.

  • Brian Walker,

    … it isn’t the “common appellation” …

    Perhaps you’d like to tell your close allies, the Americans (with whom you have such a ‘special relationship’)?

    Their Embassy in Canada calls it the “British Commonwealth”, so presumably it is a ‘common appellation’ in both the US and Canada!

  • RepublicanStones

    Why anyone (except the colonially minded) would want Ireland to rejoin the British Commonwealth is beyond me. I wonder are the same idiots pushing for the USA to join the colony club!

  • Jimmy Sands

    It would demonstrate our commitment to pluralism. It would improve our contacts with a large swathe of the developing world. It would annoy the hell out of the chuckies.

    I really can’t see a down side.