Commonwealth beckons to Ireland after a 50-year split

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IT MIGHT just be an idea whose time has come. Half a century after severing its last official links with Britain, the first moves are afoot for Ireland to rejoin the organisation born out of the former British Empire - the Commonwealth.

Two weeks ago came the clearest expression of interest yet, as the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, said that members of his own Fianna Fail party had raised the question.

Today the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, begins a high-profile visit to Dublin during which he will seek to advance the cause in meetings with Mr Ahern and President Mary McAleese.

On paper, the circumstances have never looked more propitious. The Commonwealth which Ireland left upon becoming a republic in 1949 had only eight members, essentially India, Pakistan and the old white dominions, with Britain very much the mother country and senior partner.

By contrast, 54 countries belong to today's Commonwealth. Of these 33 are republics, and only 15 recognise the Queen as their head of state. The organisation is starting to stretch beyond the former empire. Mozambique, once a Portuguese colony, is a member, while the Palestinians, Rwanda and Yemen have applied to join. These applications are on hold. Ireland, however, is regarded as a prime catch, and has been informally told it would be admitted virtually immediately, should it ask to join.

Huge sensitivities are involved. After the bloody struggle for independence, many Irish nationalists will instinctively oppose anything with even the faintest hint of a return to the imperial fold that the country fought so bitterly to leave. However keen Chief Anyaoku is to enlist Ireland, the process will require both tact and time.

But as Mr Ahern acknowledged, the Commonwealth "is a very different thing now than it was 50 years ago". Even more important, relations between Britain and Ireland have been transformed with the peace deal in the North. Last month Tony Blair became the first British Prime Minister to address the Irish Parliament, and a groundbreaking visit by the Queen is being planned.

An Irish return could thus be seen as setting the seal on reconciliation. Moreover, in the event of a future reunification of Ireland, membership of the Commonwealth could help reassure Ulster Unionists that they will not be severing every link with the British crown.