The possibility that Ireland may rejoin the Commonwealth after 50 years will increase when secretary-general, Chief Emeka Anyaoku, visits Dublin next week.Taoiseach Bertie Ahern last month signalled a debate on a return in the warm afterglow of talks with prime minister Tony Blair.
Irish academics see the changed stance of Mr Ahern's Fianna Fail party as part of the peace process. Pressure from two leading Fianna Fail MPs - one from Donegal on the border and the other a grandson of Eamon de Valera - has brought the issue to the fore.
Ronan Fanning, professor of history at University College Dublin, said:
"The real significance is to try to reassure Unionists that the Good Friday agreement is not a one-way street towards a united Ireland." Mr Ahern's remarks could be intended to compensate for Unionist anxieties at his statement that he expected to see a united Ireland in his lifetime.
Gareth Ivory, an analyst of Fianna Fail policy on Northern Ireland in UCD's politics department, said: "If Fianna Fail wanted to go down that road, it would probably be able to get it through. It would be able to use arguments that would be convincing for enough people, although there could be substantial apprehension."
Membership would not require Ireland to recognise the British monarch as head of state. Mr Ivory pointed out that only four months after Ireland decided it could not follow its national destiny in an organisation defined by allegiance to the British monarch, the goalposts were moved to admit India as a republic. Precedents for rejoining the Commonwealth include South Africa, Pakistan and Fiji. Cameroon, with a small British colonial heritage, and Mozambique, with no direct connection, have been admitted.
Professor Fanning thinks that de Valera would not have taken Ireland out of the Commonwealth in 1949 had he been in power. Commonwealth membership would strengthen ties with Asia and Africa and enhance trade, he said. Most people would have no objections although "some of the older Fianna Fail people might choke on their pints".