Poppy must not be twisted into symbol of division

Nobody needs to explain their wearing of the poppy in remembrance of war dead

Nearly 5,000 Irishmen died at the Battle of Passchendaele. Among them were 1,200 men who were killed on one terrible day in August 1917. Video Enda O’Dowd/Ronan McGreevy


Sometimes the best commemorations are the hardest. It is easy to acknowledge your own side, to do what everybody else does because that is the way it has always been done.

It is harder to acknowledge your erstwhile enemies or recognise their humanity. The modern trend in commemoration is towards reconciliation.

The French have ample reasons to hate the Germans. Three times in 70 years Germany invaded France. They inflicted a humiliating defeat on the French in the Franco-Prussian War. The first World War cost the French 1.4 million lives; the second left a bitter legacy.

Yet in 2014 the French erected the Ring of Remembrance in Notre Dame de Lorette. There, overlooking the battlefields of northern France, is a memorial made of bronze and stainless steel which commemorate 579,606 men of various nationalities who died in the area in the first World War.

The Glasnevin Trust took a similarly inclusive approach to commemoration and, for their troubles, got a tin of paint poured over the remembrance wall which includes and will include everybody who died during the revolutionary period including those from the crown forces.

The Government was also criticised for holding a service last May to remember the British soldiers who died in the Easter Rising.

In the same spirit, the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wore a shamrock poppy in the Dáil in memory of the Irish who died in the first World War in British uniforms. Lest we forget, the number of dead from what is now the Republic, is more than 29,000, according to the authoritative research of historian Tom Burnell.

Controversial symbol

The Taoiseach’s gesture was more significant because he was not forced to do it and it would not have been noticed if he had not worn it.

Nobody should need to explain themselves for wearing a poppy. Nobody should need to explain themselves for not wearing a poppy. Wear one, don’t wear one. Choice is the hallmark of a free society.

The poppy was always a controversial symbol in Ireland, going back to its introduction here in the 1920s. Even then Irish people were conflicted between embracing a symbol which remembered their dead and giving tacit support to British imperialism.

Many in Ireland who are well-disposed to remembering the Irish dead of both World Wars are sickened by the perennial bout of poppy fascism which seems to reach new levels of absurdity every year in Britain.

It brings out the worst in the boorish, arrogant “we had an empire mate” strand in British society and their cheerleaders in the press.

Last weekend, Republic of Ireland midfielder James McClean was booed and had missiles thrown at him while playing for West Bromwich Albion against Huddersfield Town.

McClean should not have to explain himself for not wearing a poppy, but he did so with great eloquence three years ago. If the poppy just remembered those who lost their lives in the first and second World Wars he would wear one, he explained in a letter to Wigan Athletic chairman Dave Whelan.

However, he pointed out the poppy remembers all British servicemen and women, and that includes those responsible for Bloody Sunday in his native Derry in 1972.

That ought to have been the end of the matter, but every year media outlets in the UK remind the public that James McClean “continues” not to wear a poppy as if a guy doing the same thing he has done for the last five years constitutes news.

Hatred and enmity

It is not news. It is dog-whistle journalism designed to stir up hatred and enmity for somebody who refuses to conform to an ugly trend in the British press.

It usually involves some celebrity or other who may have inadvertently forgotten to wear a poppy on television. The press swoop and find some rent-a-quote Tory MP or somebody from the cesspool of social media to complain.

The morons who booed McClean, aided and abetted by a compliant media, have made the poppy not a symbol of remembrance but a symbol of division.

Wearing the poppy is supposed to be a voluntary gesture. If everybody is forced to wear one, it becomes meaningless, an act of conformity not an act of remembrance.

It is not the fault of the Royal British Legion who have pointed out many times they do not support the compulsory wearing of the poppy. Nevertheless, it cannot say often enough or loudly enough that the targeting of people like McClean is completely wrong.

The Royal British Legion could take a lot of the toxicity out of the poppy appeal by adopting the same kind of inclusive approach adopted by the French and Irish governments. The emphasis should be on reconciliation as well as remembrance. After all, what is remembrance but a reminder that war is a stupid, bloody way to resolve our differences?

Ronan McGreevy is an Irish Times journalist and the author of the book Wherever the Firing Line Extends: Ireland and the Western Front

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