Ireland edges closer to the Commonwealth

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The Independent Online
IN AN unprecedented step, the Irish President, Mary Robinson, will attend the Commonwealth Games in Canada next month, and will have talks with the Commonwealth Secretary General, Emeka Anyaoku.

The meeting in Victoria, British Columbia, is bound to be seen as a gesture of reconciliation between the Irish Republic and the organisation it quit 45 years ago.

Commonwealth officials, flushed with the success of South Africa's recent return, make no secret of their desire to see Ireland back in the fold. There is no such enthusiasm in Dublin, where many still see the Commonwealth as British, but the idea may be considered there in the context of wider measures intended to reassure Northern Ireland Unionists.

Mrs Robinson as President cannot take initiatives or express views on Irish government policy, but her tete- a-tete with Chief Anyaoku will undoubtedly have symbolic importance and is certain to open up the subject for debate in Ireland.

Irish officials say that she was invited to see Chief Anyaoku and that she accepted readily, although there are also suggestions that it was she who put out the first feelers. The Dublin government, which has in the past taken exception to some of the President's activities, has given its blessing to the meeting.

Ireland pulled out of the Commonwealth (then the British Commonwealth) in 1949 as a consequence of its decision the previous year to sever its last links with the Crown and become a republic. There was no particular hostility to the organisation, but as a republic Ireland could not remain a member.

It is a measure of the bad feeling then prevailing between London and Dublin that although that rule was changed only eight days after Ireland's departure, no effort was made to woo the Irish back.

Commonwealth officials see membership now as a way of furthering the Irish people's interest in assisting the Third World - as demonstrated by the vigorous work of Irish aid agencies. That kind of activity, the officials say, is strongly endorsed and promoted by the Commonwealth.

The view in Dublin is cautious. Nelson Mandela's commands great respect there and his decision to return South Africa to the Commonwealth may have softened attitudes, but there is no pro- Commonweath lobby.

Rejoining might be presented as a step in the peace process, providing another signal for Unionists of Ireland's break with its anti- British past, but even then there would be resistance. Particularly in the Fianna Fail party of the Prime Minister, Albert Reynolds, some would still see it as a step too close to Britain.

It might also be seen in more liberal quarters as compromising Ireland's tradition of neutrality, which has been highly prized.

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