The following is the text of a fascinating and relevant speech entitled "Ireland: Time to Come Home" delivered by the former Commonwealth Secretary-General (1975-1990) and Foreign Minister of Guyana (1972-1975) Sir Shridath Ramphal, at the Round Table Dinner on the occasion of the 2009 Commonwealth Summit in Port of Spain.
If you find this speech interesting, you may also like to visit the comprehensive website of the Ramphal Centre for Commonwealth Studies - which helps to promote the essential values of the Commonwealth; good governance, economic development and social justice around the world.
Mr Chairman, Members of the Round Table, Commonwealth kin –
May I be permitted to begin – despite our sequestration on the Campus of the University – by extending in absentia to Her Majesty and Prince Philip the warmest of welcomes to the Caribbean, and invite you to join me in a toast to the Head of the Commonwealth and her Consort: THE QUEEN!
Next, let me say in a preliminary way that when invited to speak after dinner I was not circumscribed in any way by theme or issue – a luxury I do not often enjoy. I intend, therefore to speak to a matter that has long been on my mind and which I may not have again as good an opportunity to raise. It is eminently relevant to the 60th anniversary of the birth of the modern Commonwealth in 1949 and, I invite you to agree, to the Commonwealth’s years beyond 60. To that end, I have called these remarks (which I assure you will not detain you beyond legitimate post-prandial allowance : IRELAND: TIME TO COME HOME. But, before that, there are some linked observations.
When Richard Bourne first approached me about this evening’s Dinner I was frankly hesitant: an instinct about old wine and new wineskins made me pause. But reflection trumped instinct. The Round Table after all is an even older bottle than my wine; and it is the Round Table with whom I am here to dine. In any case, if I might stay with my metaphoric wine, the Commonwealth is like vintage port , its intrinsic quality doesn’t alter with changing decanters. So here I am, on the margins of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting – if it still is that - in my native Caribbean, thanking you for asking me. And I do sincerely thank you; for if the Commonwealth is a ‘Club’ –as African member states insistently describe it - the Round Table comes close to being an unofficial patron, and like any good patron, never far from the Commonwealth’s fortunes.
The eve of your Centennial is a proud time and I am happy to share it with you. 1910 was worlds away. That you can rightly boast of being Britain’s oldest international affairs Journal tells not only a story of your vintage, but also of the eras that have come and gone since the Round table first convened. And in all that changing time you have kept faith and focus with the Commonwealth idea in all of its evolving modes; helping, indeed, to shape them through the rigour of intellectual analysis and commentary.
To have done that for a hundred years is a huge accomplishment; and I am sure that through all your time of celebration you will be recalling the stalwarts that founded and presided in myriad ways over the affairs of the Round Table – and of your trusteeship of their legacy. In my time in Marlborough House I was ever grateful for the Round Table’s contribution to the Commonwealth project. It is a dimension of Commonwealth affairs whose absence we would bemoan were it not there. I wish, of course, that the Journal is more widely disseminated – particularly in the rest of the Commonwealth; but since this is a wish I assume you share, I expect its fulfillment is a work in progress.
This year, the Commonwealth has been celebrating its own Jubilee within those hundred years – 60 years of the modern Commonwealth – 60 years of a Commonwealth experience made possible by the wisdom that prevailed among Commonwealth leaders in 1949 – as the Round Table itself neared 40. The Head of the Commonwealth, Her Majesty the Queen, held a celebratory Reception this year to mark the occasion, and we had the pleasure of looking at the original photographs of the 1949 Prime Ministers grouped around King George VI. The Secretary-General (along with Emeka Anyaoku and me) were photographed with Her Majesty at the same spot in the Palace where that earlier photograph had been taken with her father 60 years earlier. I took the opportunity of assuring Her Majesty, of the awareness of many of the quiet role the King had played in 1949 in facilitating that enlightened decision of leaders of the quality of Clement Atlee, Jawaharalal Nehru, Lester Pearson (not yet Prime Minister) and their colleagues.
I have spoken elsewhere of that April Declaration and its making of the modern Commonwealth; members of the Round Table need no reminder of that moment of great vision, but as we dine tonight we should lift a glass to that moment when the Commonwealth faced with a turning in the road took the ‘path less travelled by’ and by doing so made all the difference to the future of the Commonwealth, and in a small way, to the future of the world. Such moments do not come often in the affairs of nations, and more rarely still, such an impeccably right choice. It is a time to remember the enlightenment of the great men who made it – both in Downing Street and in the Palace. And in remembering, let us be encouraged to look out for other turnings in the road, and other roads less travelled by, which taken might lead to lush pastures for the Commonwealth.
The April Declaration in this sense was a moment of pleasure; but, Shelley was right, sometimes ‘our sincerest laughter with some little pain is fraught’. And it is on this that I would like to dwell a little; for the pain lingers and can, and I believe should, be relieved. I talk of Ireland – not, I know, on the Agenda of the Port of Spain Meeting, and not in our minds 60 years after it left the Commonwealth; for this year marks the Jubilee of that event too.
Four days before the London Summit opened in April 1949 Ireland had left Commonwealth, baulking at ‘alleigance’ to the Crown and assuming Commonwealth membership to be incompatible with Republican Status. That the Republic of Ireland Act was passed in December 1948 but only brought into force four days before the London Summit opened, suggests however that that assumption may not have been unquestioned in Dublin. In other words, 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.
I must say a little more, however; and some of it really is ironic. Historically, the Irish Free State helped to make the modern Commonwealth possible through its contributions to the Imperial Conferences of 1926 and 1930 which gave the Commonwealth legal definition. The insistent and constructive efforts of the Cosgrave Government were central to both the Balfour Declaration of 1926 and the Statute of Westminster of 1931. In 1926 both South Africa and the Irish Free State claimed credit for securing the definition of ‘Dominion Status’. To the statement of General Hertzog on his return to South Africa: ’We have brought home the bacon’; the Irish Representative Kevin O’Higgins is reported to have commented: ‘Irish bacon’. And so too was the Statute of Westminster. Nicholas Mansergh was actually shown the desk in Dublin where the Statute was said to have been drafted. The point is, Ireland played a major role in moving the Commonwealth to modernity. But the sticking point still was ‘alleigance’
Not surprisingly, when in 1948 India decided to become a Republic but wished to remain in the Commonwealth, it was to Dublin’s long efforts to work out appropriate forms that it turned; and this time the whole Commonwealth and its future direction benefited. In a sense, all India did was to declare her intention to become a Republic, express her wish to remain in the Commonwealth and her acceptance of the King as the symbol of the free association of the Commonwealth’s independent member states and, as such, Head of the Commonwealth.
But a sea change had occurred. The effect of the April Declaration was to replace allegiance to the Crown as the criterion of Commonwealth membership with the much more modest acceptance of the King, later the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth. Today, Commonwealth Heads of Government meet in a Republic in the Caribbean. This apparently simple change removed at one stroke the legal objection that had caused the Irish Republic’s withdrawal a week earlier; but whether it would have made Ireland’s continued membership likely had it come earlier is another matter entirely.
Sean MacBride’s view – and he was Ireland’s Foreign Minister at time (Minister for External Affairs in the Inter-Party Government - when I asked him the question many years later, was decidedly negative. He explained that, In fact, the date for bringing the Republic of Ireland Act into force had been long set for Easter Day 1949, viz., 18 April; the convening of the London Summit on 22 April simply galvanized Dublin into not letting the date slip. Republicans, like MacBride wanted no reason to arise that might encourage second thoughts. The truth was, that the long and troubled relationship between Dublin and London and the powerful symbolism of the Crown, despite the disappearance of ‘allegiance’, was not enough at that time to stay the process of withdrawal from the Commonwealth. Yet, 60 years later, Dublin’s fear that Commonwealth membership might tarnish its independence has not been the experience of other Commonwealth countries, the great majority of them republics. Rather the opposite. Nehru, himself arch-nationalist and republican, described Commonwealth membership as ‘independence plus’.
Six decades later, when some of the wounds of the troubles are healing under the influence of Dublin and London working together; when the Queen as the symbolic Head of the Commonwealth has demonstrated beyond question that the Commonwealth’s Republics are as one with any other; when the Commonwealth is opening up its membership to newcomers who share none of the historic ties that bind Ireland to so many of us; is it perhaps time to tell Ireland that nothing but welcome awaits her in the Commonwealth when she feels ready to come home.
I thought that the Caribbean might not be so bad a place to raise this matter in that there is a kinship with Ireland whose roots go deep in history – deep in the conjunctures between the experience of Ireland and that of many of the countries of the Commonwealth. The ‘provinces’ in the beginning were not so very different from the colonies of settlement. When I read, for example, that Lord Montgomery’s family background was in ‘the Plantation’ – a plantation as much human as agricultural – we are on common ground. My forbears from India were indentured to the plantations of British Guiana, where ‘plantation’ meant colonization, as well a human transplantation to a form of servitude.
So let me end with a conjuncture of a lighter kind. When, in 1837, the Guiana sugar planters were pressing for British government acquiescence in bringing indentured workers from India, they used as part of their argument the allegation that labourers imported from elsewhere, including ‘Ireland’, had not proved suitable “ from the influence of the climate generally producing reluctance to labour, and increasing the Desire for Spirituous Liquors, which the low Price and abundance of new Rum enables them to gratify”. I quote from a letter from Sir John Gladstone, the father of England’s future Prime Minister.
My ancestors went to Guyana’s sugar plantations as a result of that letter – whence by indirection I come to you tonight. Lest the Irish in Guyana be defamed, let me add that it was not so much the indentured labourers – from Ireland or elsewhere – who gratified a desire for ‘Spirituours Liquors’, but the sugar planters themselves who made famous that most potent of tonics – the ‘Demerara rum swizzle’ – the progenitor of the ‘West Indian Rum Punch’, which I hope you have enjoyed copiously in Port of Spain.
It is time these Commonwealth conjunctures with Ireland and the Irish fulfilled their innate destiny.
Where better to say this that to the Round Table - and in the Caribbean !
(Port of Spain, 27th November 2009)