Commonwealth Day, by Roy Garland

Commonwealth Day by Roy Garland  – 5 March 2012, The Irish News

This year’s Commonwealth Day theme for Monday 12th March is “Connecting Cultures”. This involves an exploration of cultural traditions across the planet to be displayed in words, music and dance. The diversity is in tune with the concept of a Commonwealth that covers 2 billion people in 54 different countries across the globe.

The origins of the Commonwealth lie with the British Empire but the name also reminds us of Cromwell’s Commonwealth. The latter was a Republic that covered these islands. Neither Cromwell’s Commonwealth nor the British Empire was faultless yet the ideas on which they were based contain the seeds of a more wholesome future for human beings in that commonwealth suggests sharing.

Commonwealth Day is not officially marked in the Republic but for the third year running the Reform Group will mark the day in Dublin.  Reform is a nonsectarian, nonparty group that promotes a pluralist, open agenda for an inclusive modern Irish republic.

They accept that progress has been made but believe much work remains to be done. A better Ireland would be better served if the Republic were to join the Commonwealth.  The Day is to be marked at the Arts Building, Trinity College Dublin, on Monday next at 6.00pm.

Tom Elliott, UUP leader is to be the speaker.  He has hailed Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Republic as a resounding success that opens up new possibilities.

Her positive reception is another step towards the Irish Republic joining the Commonwealth. It is significant that the UUP leader is saying these things and taking steps towards improving relationships north and south by going to Dublin.

In contrast the previous UUP leader regretted too much emphasis on north-south links. Perhaps he was thinking of formal linkages, which are important but surely it is also informal relationships built between ordinary people at all levels that makes a real difference.

In the late 1980s I set out deliberately to become acquainted with and understand people in the Republic. Until then the South remained a remote, foreign and at times threatening place.  This was despite my family having lived near Dundalk for centuries and having retained family links in Monaghan.

I can still recall the sense of dread on crossing the border and the relief on returning home during the 1960s and 70s. Returning to the patchwork quilted patterned fields of Northern Ireland was always comforting. Friends in the South similarly feared crossing in the opposite direction although many did so on both sides.

In the longer term crossing that border was a liberating experience. One result was the formation of the Guild of Uriel as a vehicle through which we could share experiences with friends from a wide range of backgrounds. The resulting dialogue was satisfying and encouraging.

The reaction of young Loyalists in the 1990s was instructive. They feared the crossing but could hardly believe the warmth of the reception they received. Yet even some Unionist politicians still feared being shot by the IRA after crossing the border.

What amazed me was the empathy that ordinary people could show each other. Members of Reform met with local Catholics who seemed shocked to discover that fellow citizens of the Irish Republic could feel so alienated from the dominant ethos.

Tom Elliott now echoes what I have said in this column about the value of Irish Commonwealth membership. This could help cement and heal relationships not only across these islands but also with a worldwide family of nations that would surely be in keeping with the best of Irish traditions.

The modern Commonwealth dates from 1949 when the word “British” was removed from the title. But Ireland also left the Commonwealth and North and South became more estranged. The time has now surely come to mend relationships and heal ancient hurts.

There is nothing incongruous about a republic in membership of the Commonwealth. In fact most present members are republics and, although Queen Elizabeth remains symbolic Head, future heads need not be monarchs.

The Commonwealth is a free association of nations working together on a basis of equality while committed to democracy and human rights. It is a force for progress in the world that has the capacity to help move us towards a better world through “connecting cultures”.

Perhaps Winston Churchill’s words quoted recently by Eamon Phoenix, are relevant in this context and during this Ulster Covenant year  “Let Ulster fight for the dignity and honour of Ireland; let her fight for the reconciliation of races and for the forgiveness of ancient wrongs…. Then indeed Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”.

Article reproduced courtesy of The Irish News