Johnny Watterson: Is the poppy really about remembering all the victims of war?

Nemanja Matic and Paul O’Connell the latest to get caught up in the never-ending debate

 Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic decided not to wear a poppy on his shirt during his side’s 1-0 loss to Arsenal. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images

Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic decided not to wear a poppy on his shirt during his side’s 1-0 loss to Arsenal. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Getty Images

 

Where I grew up nobody wore a poppy. Where I grew up if you went outside with a poppy on your lapel, physical assault was a certainty. Where I grew up the poppy was seen as emblematic of supporting the other side. It was about showing support for an army nobody much cared for.

There were many people living in the area whose grandfathers had fought in the first World War. They had lost great uncles and distant cousins fighting alongside the British army in France and Belgium.

In the 1960s that would have been less than 50 years before and just 20 years after the second World War. We grew up with words like Gallipoli, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele and Ypres, names that always sounded glamorous.

Families kept old relics from the second World War, heavy British army helmets that we took turns at trying on and then allowed friends rain down blows with increasing orders of menace, brush handles, stones, finally iron bars to see if it hurt and stood up to what it was supposed to.

There were WWII hand grenades knocking around with the detonators taken out, pieces of old uniform and worn green belts, knives and billycans that excited kids brought onto the streets to show friends what their dads had been up to before they met mom.

There was an intimate connection with the wars. It was stitched into the area and within living memory of many people. Most of our fathers had lived through WWII, had experienced the bombing of Belfast by Germany, the first in April 1941, when my father was old enough to be playing football for the county Antrim team.

The next attack took place on Easter Tuesday of the same year. Around 200 Luftwaffe planes bombed military and manufacturing targets in the city with 900 people dying and 1,500 injured. There was no misunderstanding about how the two wars knitted into families and communities and the human contributions made.

But by the 1970s the wars of the past had been forgotten. There was another taking place at the front door. Before becoming a teenager, kids had lost count of the riots, shootings and chaos, or how often their school was closed. In the endless body searches along fences and walls women screamed and spat in the faces of soldiers belonging to a British army in which their fathers once fought.

Last weekend Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic decided not to wear a poppy on his shirt during his side’s 1-0 loss to Arsenal. Matic said it was because of a bombing which occurred, when he was 12 years old, in the village where he then lived, Vrelo, Serbia. They were Nato bombs. Matic said the poppy “didn’t feel right”.

Six years ago James McClean wrote a letter to the Wigan club chairman explaining his decision to step outside the team and not wear a poppy embroidered shirt.

“ . . . the poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me,” said McClean. “For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.”

The BBC explained two days ago “the anniversary is used to remember all the people who have died in wars not just World War One. This includes World War Two, the Falklands War, the Gulf War and conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Last weekend Paul O’Connell did wear a poppy on television working as a BBC pundit alongside Martin Johnson for Ireland’s Six Nations Championship match against France. On social media the former Irish captain – among ex-players unusually highly respected – drew the sort of nasty venom in which Twitter specialises.

McClean and Matic would know O’Connell’s pain. Although they come from different realities, they have one thing in common. O’Connell got trashed on social media for wearing the poppy and McClean got trashed for his defiance and refusal to do so.

Armistice Day or Remembrance Day is on November 11th and marks the day the first World War ended. However, like taking the knee during a national anthem, or wearing a surgical mask to try and curb the spread of a deadly virus, the poppy has become what it was never supposed to be, a polarising symbol.

The challenge is respecting two sides and trying to walk a mile in the shoes of O’Connell and doing the same for McClean.

Either way the players inevitably find themselves in lose-lose positions. Regardless of their choice they find they must explain. What that means is they are damned by the first law of politics, that explaining is losing.

But those who don’t and won’t wear a poppy like the people I grew up with, the families that kept old world war mementos for their children and who had relatives that fought and died with the British army are entitled to ask a legitimate question.

Is the poppy really about remembering Iraq fighters killed in a phoney war, Argentinean conscripts in the Falkland Islands or people like unarmed 17-year-old Jackie Duddy shot dead by the parachute regiment at Rossville flats in Derry. Or is the poppy just about remembering the British soldiers that have died conducting those wars.

People will make their own choices.

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