Invited Talk at the RCS Toronto Summer Garden Party

Ireland and the Commonwealth:  Invited Talk at the RCS Toronto Summer Garden Party.

Mr Robin Bury

Royal Commonwealth Society Toronto, 11 August 2019, Toronto Hunt.



Mr Robin Bury is a supporter and friend of RCS Ireland. During the summer of 2019, he was kindly invited to deliver a talk on the history of Ireland and the Commonwealth, whilst emphasising the ongoing work of RCS Ireland. Our Branch is eager to foster stronger links with our international Branch colleagues and we are grateful that Mr Bury agreed to represent our Branch so professionally and generously. The following provides a transcript of Mr Bury’s talk during the event. – RCS Ireland Leadership Team, 2019

Many thanks to David, Rosemary and Colin for asking me to talk to you to-day in this lovely venue on Lake Ontario. I am honoured to address you on behalf of the Reform Group and the Royal Commonwealth Society Ireland. I want to talk about two aspects of Ireland and the Commonwealth:

  • Firstly, how and why Ireland left in 1949.
  • Secondly the recent efforts of the Reform Group and the Royal Commonwealth Society Ireland to lobby for Ireland to return.

The subject of Ireland leaving is controversial, to say the least, even bizarre, and certainly not thought out. One Irish historian, Dermot Keogh, wrote these ‘decision making skills ‘were more reminiscent of ‘the Marx brothers than with government in a Western democracy’. Or maybe Monty Python. Let’s go back to when the Irish Taoiseach, or Prime Minister, John A Costello, announced to the press in the Ottawa parliament building that Ireland intended to leave the Commonwealth. This was over seventy years ago on 7th September 1948. Costello was leader of the Fine Gael party.


So why leave?

At the heart of the reason was Costello’s dislike of the External Relations Act of the previous Taoiseach, Eamonn de Valera, who was head of the opposition party, Fianna Fail. Costello had criticised it in a speech to the Canadian Bar Association in Montreal on 1st September 1948, where he was the guest speaker. Why object? De Valera wanted Ireland to stay in the Commonwealth and recognised the Crown as head of the then British Commonwealth, so relations with Northern Ireland ‘could come into association with Ireland’ in his own words.

Costello was not impressed. He believed that recognition of the Crown as a figurehead in relations with other states was inappropriate and one consequence was that Irish senior diplomats were accredited by the British monarch but put forward by the Irish government for token approval.  Also, the act did not acknowledge Ireland’s full powers to negotiate or sign treaties. Costello also said that Ireland had not attended Commonwealth meetings from 1936 to 1948 so effectively had left it. In effect, Costello rejected Ireland’s allegiance to the Crown in his speech in Montreal.


Interestingly, Fine Gael did not put breaking the link with the Commonwealth in their election manifesto in 1948, unlike their coalition party, Clann na Poblachta, led by Sean MacBride, the son of John MacBride, one of the 15 men executed by the British in 1916 after the Easter Rising in Dublin. This insurrection was aimed at getting Irish independence. Sean MacBride was in charge of External.

Affairs in the coalition government of FG. Yet it was Costello who announced the decision to leave, not MacBride, who was surprised by Costello’s solo run without prior discussion with his cabinet.

Back to Ottawa. The Governor general, Lord Alexander, entertained Costello at a formal dinner on 4th September. It was agreed there would be a toast to both the King and to the Irish President, but there was only a toast to the King. Why? Because, by toasting the Irish President, Canada would recognise Ireland was not a member of the Commonwealth and in the words of the Canadian Prime Minister, MacKenzie King, was ‘an entirely separate country with a President as head of State.

A state as much independent of the British crown as the USA’. Also, to add insult to injury as far as Costello was concerned, a replica of  the‘Roaring Meg’ cannon was on table, used to protect Protestants inside the walls of Londonderry when under siege for 105 days in 1689 by the armies of King James 11, the Catholic king of England, Scotland and Ireland. Lord Alexander was a proud freeman of Londonderry and had been given the replica of roaring meg. This annoyed Costello but Alexander routinely placed the ornament on the table when entertaining, and it was certainly not intended as an insult to Ireland.


What triggered off his announcement was the Irish Sunday Independent’s front-page story on 5th September that Ireland was going to leave the Commonwealth. This headline was based on Costello’s criticisms of the External Relations act to the Canadian Bar Association.

The editor of the Sunday Independent was Hector Legge. He was friendly with MacBride and others in the cabinet and must have known leaving the British Commonwealth was being discussed by government Ministers, though no decision had been made. He was kite flying. MacBride sent Costello a telegram the day the story broke urging him not to comment. The Irish High Commissioner to Canada, John Hearne, also urged Costello not to comment. But Costello decided to announce on 7th September at a press conference in the Railway Committee Room of the Ottawa parliament buildings that Ireland was going to leave.


The implications were not thought through and the cabinet had not agreed, nor the senior members of civil service been informed. The British Lord Chancellor, Jowett, pointed out that by leaving, Ireland could be treated as quote a ‘foreign nation’ and loose rights and privileges for Irish trade and Irish citizens in the UK. However, the British Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, worried about losing votes of the Irish in Britain for the Labour party, rejected Jowett’s proposal. Also, the Australian deputy Prime Minister, Dr Evatt strongly intervened and prevailed on MacKenzie King and Attlee to allow Ireland to retain its Commonwealth privileges. In the words of the historian Eithne MacDermott:


In donning the natty nationalist rain gear of de Valera, and in stealing the republican raiment of the bathing MacBride, Costello did not merely appropriate their garments, but also enabled Fine Gael to reclaim their nationalist ancestry and heritage…

In to-days terms, it was an IREXIT with no deal. Costello was aware that he had acted unconstitutionally. When he got back to Dublin, he invited the Cabinet to his house and offered to resign. His offer was turned down. In the words of McCullagh in his biography of Costello, his Ministers ‘decided that jettisoning the Commonwealth was preferable to jettisoning the Taoiseach.’

Ireland attended the Commonwealth conference in London in 1949 as an observer and in the words of historian MacDermott, ‘emerged no longer a member of the Commonwealth but with all its advantages, privileges and usages intact due to the strong support of the other Commonwealth countries.’ That included Canada. Churchill’s famous words came true:


When they were in they were out, and when they were out they were in.

Ireland became a republic on 18 April, Easter day, 1949. Why Easter? Because the 1916 Rising took place on Easter Monday 1916. The British then passed the Ireland Bill which copper fastened partition. In the words of historian Ian McCabe, Costello said one motivation he had to leave the Commonwealth was to ‘take the gun out of Irish politics. We all know how successful that aim was! One historian has argued it might well have put the gun back in Irish politics to end partition, copper fastened by the Ireland Bill. Interestingly, the London declaration of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers meeting in 1949 decided, according to an article in the Royal Irish Academy:

To accommodate India as a republic, the concept of allegiance to the Crown was suddenly dropped in favour of recognizing its wearer as ‘head of the Commonwealth’. This would have been unimaginable in the pre-war years and resulted in a scramble to gain credit for having come up with the final compromise.

Those involved included Lester Pearson of Canada, Pakistan’s Zafrullah Kahn and India’s Krishna Menon; but McIntyre (New Zealand historian) concluded that the formulation: ‘neatly incorporated the two concepts of symbol and head that de Valera had mooted back in 1921′. It was a fact that had been recognised by the British for some time; its public pronouncement came weeks after Ireland became a republic on 18 April 1949. 


For the next 14 years Eire suffered economically and remained in the cold outside the court of Anglo-American relations. Eventually this was redeemed by John F Kennedy to whom Taoiseach Sean Lemass offered up the sacrifice of Irish neutrality.


So let’s jump to today and the lobbying for Ireland to re-enter the Commonwealth.

A start was made in 1998 after the Belfast Agreement (Good Friday Agreement) was signed. The Reform Movement was formed to lobby for an inclusive, secular, pluralist Ireland, along Canadian lines, but need I state, without the Crown as head of state. I was the second Chairman of Reform.

One of our objectives was to lobby for Ireland to re-enter the Commonwealth. We went to talk to the then Fine Gael Taoiseach, John Bruton, who was not personally opposed but suggested FG would not go back as it had taken Ireland out. He suggested we talked to de Valera’s party, Fianna Fail and particularly to Eamon O’Cuiv, de Valera’s grandson who supports re-entry. We held a number of meetings in the Royal Irish Academy but there was little political interest.

Then in 2015 the RCS Ireland took up the cudgels with one objective, re-entering the Commonwealth. Let’s look at to-day’s Commonwealth of Nationa, radically different to the British Commonwealth Ireland left.


  • The Commonwealth’s population stretches over all continents and represents 2.2 billion people, encompassing approximately 30% of the world’s population. Despite leaving the Commonwealth in 1949, Ireland is home to hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth citizens. Indeed, seventy percent of Irish-born people living overseas reside in Commonwealth countries. There are 21 million people of Irish descent in Commonwealth countries to-day.


  • The Irish government recently outlined its priorities for international relations and posture, which aims to focus on peace, security and prosperity, whilst promoting reconciliation and cooperation in areas such as trade, finance, energy, travel, and defence.


  • Thirty two of the 53 Commonwealth countries are republics, which value their common bonds across the association. The RCS Ireland Branch seeks to focus attention on the many advantages and possibilities that await Ireland’s closer relationship with the Commonwealth of Nations.


  • The RCS Ireland Branch was founded in 2015 with a ceremony at Dublin’s Mansion House, which was hosted by the Lord Mayor. Irish politicians and Commonwealth Ambassadors joined journalists, academics, and Irish sporting celebrities to mark the occasion.


Commenting on the opening of the new Branch, the President of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Lord Howell said: “The request for a new branch of the RCS in Dublin will serve as a visible link to the millions of people of Irish descent living in states throughout the Commonwealth, in addition to the hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth citizens residing in Ireland.”


Branch Achievements:


  • The Irish Branch has since facilitated annual Commonwealth Day events in Dublin, hosted by various Commonwealth Embassies, including Australia, Nigeria, Pakistan; along with Branch representation at the Commonwealth Day Service at Westminster Abbey in London.


  • The Branch successfully hosted an RCS international meeting and lunch at the House of Lords in London, whilst also hosting an inaugural meeting in Ireland’s Government Buildings for Commonwealth Ambassadors assigned to Ireland.


  • The Branch has achieved success in liaising with the Commonwealth Games Federation, sports associations, and legal advisors in working towards the inclusion of all-island Irish sports teams in the Commonwealth Games; and this effort is ongoing.


Finally, we are updating our book Ireland and the Commonwealth published in 2009 with an essay by the Canadian Professor Robert Martin, University of Western Ontario. He argues that Pierre Trudeau became an enthusiastic supporter of the Commonwealth



The RCS Ireland Branch has achieved significant accomplishments in improving Ireland’s relationship with the Commonwealth of Nations. The Branch has a range of activities and events planned for the coming year, details of which will be available via the Branch’s website and social media presence.


The Irish government became an observer member of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie — the French equivalent of the Commonwealth – in October 2018 indicating a desire to align with France. This is understandable in promoting Irish relations with a strong EU nation, France, but with the UK set to leave the EU, Ireland could strengthen its relations with the Commonwealth countries, many of which it helped to develop.


The leadership team within the Branch is mindful of the potential challenges and opportunities associated with the impending departure of the UK from the EU. The Branch will seek to respond to the outcome of this process so as to continue to strengthen Irish links to the Commonwealth. However, it must be said that in the present poor atmosphere of Anglo-Irish relations, a return to the Commonwealth is unlikely at the present time. Some might argue that Northern Ireland unionists might be courted into a united Ireland by Ireland returning to the Commonwealth, and Sinn Fein has proposed this. However, I have not found evidence of this. I believe Ireland should return because it sees important reasons to further its own interests.


We would like to thank all our international colleagues throughout the RCS for their ongoing support; and we encourage you to liaise with your peers and fellow networks to enhance the bonds between Ireland and the Commonwealth of Nations.


Thank You.