My Lords, the Republic of Ireland’s interest in rejoining the Commonwealth is a matter for the Irish Government and, of course, for the existing Commonwealth membership.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. May I take this opportunity of congratulating Her Majesty and the President of Ireland on a very successful royal visit to the Republic of Ireland? In the light of this outstanding success, do the Government agree that it is important to build on the results of the visit in a constructive way so as further to improve relations within these islands and between the two parts of Ireland? In particular, do the Government agree that if Ireland, as an independent republic, was to rejoin the Commonwealth, or have a new association with the Commonwealth, this would be calculated to be of benefit to Ireland, and more particularly greatly improve relations between the divided communities in Ireland?
I agree 100 per cent with the noble Lord’s remarks about the enormously successful state visit, which has no doubt struck a very positive chord and gives great hope to all of us who are familiar with and wish to see ameliorated and put in the past the great problems of Ireland of the past few hundred years. The noble Lord is absolutely on the right track there. However, I have to reiterate that the initiative on which he is questioning me—membership of the Commonwealth—really is a matter for the Irish Government to look at. In many other areas I suspect that the state visit has provided an impetus and a momentum on both sides of the water for new initiatives to bring the Republic of Ireland and all aspects of the United Kingdom still closer together. They are our good friends and we are theirs.
In encouraging movement in the direction suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Rana, may I remind my noble friend of the very different example of the great success with which the former communist Portuguese colony of Mozambique has become a fully fledged member of the Commonwealth, with great benefit to the Commonwealth as well as to Mozambique?
My noble and learned friend’s question gives me the opportunity to observe—I imagine that this will come as no surprise to noble Lords—that the Commonwealth club today is one which many people wish to join and be associated with in all sorts of forms. There is no doubt that, as we move into the 21st century, the particular nature of the Commonwealth, with its linkages, close associations, common elements of trust, understanding and friendship and its capacity to expand trade and investment, is the kind of club which many countries want to join. They look at the example of Mozambique and see a new Commonwealth pattern emerging, not necessarily precisely related to the old question of which countries were members of the British Commonwealth or the British Empire. It is a very successful platform for the 21st century and many other countries are queuing up to join it, which is very flattering.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with me that relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have never been better, that Ireland is our closest trading partner and that the contribution made by Irish people, and people of Irish origin, has been of great benefit to this country and is something to be celebrated?
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that during the peace process I approached the leaders of all the political parties in the Republic of Ireland, all of whom said the same thing—that an application from Ireland to rejoin the Commonwealth was unlikely but that if unionists were to request it as part of the peace process it would undoubtedly be deliverable? The unionist parties did not request it so that moment has passed. However, it seems to me that perhaps an application will only follow invitations. Will my noble friend undertake to explore with the Secretary-General and other members of the Commonwealth whether the Irish Republic might be invited as a guest to Commonwealth events, perhaps even the Commonwealth Games, to help move us in a direction whereby it would not have to make an application but would nevertheless be welcomed in?
This is one of the very interesting and exciting approaches that now become possible as our relations have kept improving to their present excellent level. I cannot make any precise promises because, as I said at the beginning, we must expect the signs to come from the Irish Government that that is the way forward, but there is no reason why the Commonwealth Secretariat should not invite any country, including the Republic of Ireland, to be aware of the vast variety of Commonwealth developments, associations and branded activities throughout the globe in which Ireland or any other country may be interested.
My Lords, does the Minister realise that the peoples in both countries in the island of Ireland—in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland—rejoice at the success of the state visit by Her Majesty the Queen to the Republic of Ireland? Secondly, does he accept that, in the case of Mozambique or, more recently, Southern Sudan, a decision to join the Commonwealth was left to the peoples of those countries, not through any encouragement from the United Kingdom? I speak from long experience of politics in Northern Ireland and relations with the Republic of Ireland. Does the Minister accept that any encouragement from the United Kingdom to the Republic of Ireland to join the Commonwealth would be counterproductive?
The noble Lord speaks with much wisdom and experience on these matters. I hope that something of what he said was reflected in my initial comment that any move of this kind must come from the Irish Government and the Irish people in the first instance. As to other countries seeking to join, of course, the ultimate decision is not in the gift of the British Government, it is in the gift of the Commonwealth as a whole—all 54 members. It is interesting that Southern Sudan, which is just about to be born on 9 July, should express the wish to join. Another country has joined the queue of those interested in joining: Gabon. Other countries want to be associated—they may not qualify as members. Our friends in the Gulf are all extremely interested in observer or associate membership if that can be achieved. Countries far outside the original pattern of Commonwealth membership are also very interested in what is going on in the Commonwealth, because it is one of the most exciting and developing platforms and networks of the 21st century.