Seventy years ago this month, a prime minister led a divided nation towards the exit from what was then one of the world’s most important organisations. On that occasion, Ireland was the country wanting to leave and there was no backstop to hold things up. Despite the pleas of the other member states, the Irish walked out of the Commonwealth.
I was reminded of that moment this week as the budding bromance between the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and France’s President Emmanuel Macron unfolded. Relations have never been better, Mr Varadkar cooed to nods from M. Macron. As well he might. For Varadkar has just returned his nation to the Commonwealth fold — by signing up to the French Commonwealth.
To the astonishment of diplomats all over the world, Ireland is now a proud junior member of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, the Paris--based organisation for those bits of the world once ruled by the French. The official reason, according to Varadkar’s government, is that Ireland wants to increase its ‘global footprint’ and because Samuel Beckett wrote the odd play in French.
Only a cynic would suggest that this is a calculated two fingers to Brexit Britain. Only the mean-spirited would suggest that little Leo will do anything to suck up to the top gang in the EU playground. He is going to need to, of course, if he wants to hang on to his nation’s cosy corporate tax deals once the Brits are no longer around to help fight Ireland’s corner against big EU tax reforms. Britain stood ready with a £3.2 billion emergency loan when Ireland faced bankruptcy after the financial crash. Indeed, we have agreed to go to the back of the queue of creditors, behind the IMF, when it comes to repayment. But Varadkar is banking on new chums to help him out in future.
It would be entirely logical for Ireland to reach out to the millions of proudly Irish or part-Irish citizens across an English--speaking Commonwealth of 53 nations from Canada to India, Australia, and beyond. Yet the Irish government has decided to place greater importance on extending Ireland’s sphere of influence to places like Benin and Chad. Whereas the Commonwealth makes a point of not being British, members of the Francophonie must pledge to promote Gallic culture and ‘favour the development of the use of French’. Macron takes a hands-on (some might say colonial) attitude to his club. How odd, then, to see the Irish — usually so quick to take offence at any whiff of imperialism — acting as a cheerleader for French aggrandisement.
Still, they’re not the only members of the club with the flimsiest of French connections. Who knew that, say, Uruguay had a French past? Opening this year’s Festival de la Francophonie festival in Ireland, the Minister of European Affairs, Helen McEntee, explained: ‘Ireland attaches great importance to the principles of the Francophonie — the French language and cultural diversity as well as the promotion of the organisation’s values, including peace, democracy and human rights.’ ‘Bien sûr!’ as no one at all says from Cork to Connemara.
Perhaps McEntee should have checked out Ireland’s new bedfellows before signing up. Some are firmly at the bottom of every global corruption index. While English--speaking dictatorships like Zimbabwe are banished from the Commonwealth for their deplorable human rights records, French-speaking crooks have no such problem. Anything goes in the Francophonie. Take Burundi, which criminalises all same-sex relationships and faces allegations of torture and extra-judicial killings. Maybe human rights were not Dublin’s chief motivation after all.
Since Ireland no longer has a problem with joining a post-imperial club, why not also join one which actually speaks the same language? You can happily belong to both, after all. Canada, for example, is in both the Francophonie and the Commonwealth. Ireland, meanwhile, steadfastly turns its back on a perfect vehicle for its international ambitions for no other reason than that it was once run by the Brits. That ended almost a century back with the Balfour Declaration of 1926 which stated that all Commonwealth nations are free and equal. Most members are republics and yet all are entirely happy having the Queen as the honorary (and non-hereditary) ‘head’. Many, like Ireland, have historic grievances against the British Empire. Yet they still play a very enthusiastic role in Commonwealth affairs.
It is beyond question that the Irish would be model members of the ‘family of nations’. Ireland punches way above its weight in international diplomacy. It has an impressive range of organisations which would plug straight into the Commonwealth’s global network. Its younger citizens would win hatfuls of medals at the Commonwealth Games. Thousands of its gallant sons already lie in beautifully maintained Commonwealth war graves around the world.
Of course, the last thing likely to lure it back on board will be overtures from Britain. But all the other nations are just as keen to see Ireland back in the club — and have said so often. In purely bilateral UK/Irish terms, it would be a diplomatic masterstroke by a statesmanlike Irish leader. Leo Varadkar, however, just wants a pat on the head from Emmanuel Macron.