Sonny Ramphal: 'pain of Ireland's withdrawal lingers'

A former secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations – formerly the British Commonwealth – has called for Ireland to rejoin the organisation.

In a speech at the round- table dinner at the Commonwealth summit in Trini­dad, Sir Shridath 'Sonny' Ramphal said it was time to tell Ireland that "nothing but welcome awaits her in the Commonwealth when she feels ready to come home".

The previously unreported speech, entitled 'Ireland: Time to Come Home', was made late last year. Ramphal recalled how, just four days before the beginning of the London Summit in April 1949, which marked the birth of the modern Commonwealth, Ireland left the organisation, "baulking at 'allegiance' to the crown and assuming Commonwealth membership to be incompatible with Republican status".

Noting the gap between the passing of the Republic of Ireland Act in December 1948 and the leaving of the Commonwealth the following April, Ramphal said it suggested that for the new Irish Republic leaving the Commonwealth was "not so much a legal necessity [a necessary implication of becoming a Republic] but a deliberate political choice. And, of course, my point tonight is that political choices are never for all time".

The former foreign minister of Guyana, who served as secretary general of the Commonwealth between 1975 and 1990, praised the role of the Irish Free State in shaping the modern Commonwealth through its contributions to the Imperial Conferences of 1926 and 1930 which gave the organisation legal definition.

"The point is Ireland played a major role in moving the Commonwealth to modernity. But the sticking point was still allegiance," he said. However, the issue of allegiance to the crown changed in 1949 to the "more modest acceptance" of the British monarch as 'head of the Commonwealth'." Ramphal added that in reality the long and troubled relationship between Ireland and Britain and the powerful symbolism of the crown meant that the disappearance of allegiance was not enough at the time "to stay off process" of Irish withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

Stating that the "pain" of Ireland's withdrawal "lingers and can, and, I believe should, be relieved," Ramphal said that 60 years on, Ireland's fear that Commonwealth membership might "tarnish its independence" has not been the experience of other member countries, the great majority of them republics. Nehru, an arch-nationalist and Republican, described Commonwealth membership as "independence plus", he noted.

Six decades on, he concluded, with the wounds of the troubles healing under the influence of Dublin and London working together, and when the queen as the symbolic head of the Commonwealth has "demonstrated beyond question" that the organisation's republics are "as one with any other" and when the Commonwealth is opening up its membership to newcomers, "is it perhaps times to tell Ireland that nothing but welcome awaits her in the Commonwealth when she feels ready to come home?"