The poppy contradiction: political, divisive, both or neither?

Up in Belfast, it sometimes seems, they cannot leave the past completely behind

Northern Ireland might do well to have a bit of a policy review if they are really serious about inclusiveness. Photograph: Inpho

I really can’t recall anyone in the public service job where I worked nearly 30 years ago in London ever even raising the issue of whether they were allowed wear a poppy on their uniform.

The prohibition, I think, was simply assumed but it didn’t seem to be a big thing back then; the poppy was just something to show you had given to a good cause of your own choice.

The national mood has clearly shifted since and the poppy issue has become a matter of pride though not always in a good way. The Royal British Legion, which raises funds through sales, has had to clarify that it does not believe anyone should actually have to wear one but it increasingly appears to be out of step with a good portion of the population on that.

Even in the context of the mood in modern Britain, though, it still seems remarkable that an industry that has, at its most high profile and public end, come to rely almost entirely on migrant workers has essentially made it all but obligatory to wear the symbol while out on the job. Including a poppy on a pre-prepared shirt effectively removed all freedom of choice on the matter; unless that is you are willing to do what James McClean has done, to make a stand against something he believes is wrong, for him, and put up with all of the abuse that inevitably follows.


The number of Britons who rebel against the orthodoxy seems to grow each November but so too, it seems, does the zeal of the moral majority. The broadcaster and journalist Jon Snow has talked about “poppy fascism,” but there are a fair few people who seem utterly oblivious to the ironies involved.

The rules, in fact, would surely still prohibit poppies if they were interpreted by an independent body like CAS

It is, in any case, entirely possible to respect the work done by the Legion for veterans of their own country’s armed services - not too many of whom end up inhabiting easy street - and still feel that the whole situation has gotten badly out of hand.

And it is hard not to marvel that the English FA's chief executive Martin Glenn, while discussing the charges against Pep Guardiola over the yellow ribbon he wears in support of jailed Catalan leaders, can claim with an air of complete certainty that the poppy is neither political nor divisive.

How much thought, you ask yourself, went into that? And then the question is answered when Glenn manages to include both Stars of David and swastikas on the short list of examples that he throws out of what really is unacceptable.

The rules, in fact, would surely still prohibit poppies if they were interpreted by an independent body like CAS. They were, notionally at least, drawn up by IFAB, the International Football Association Board, 50 per cent of which is comprised of representatives from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Even that board’s advice late last year on how to interpret its own rule (favourably but selectively, seems to have been the intended message) doesn’t really seem to put the prohibition on poppies beyond dispute, however.

“The basic compulsory equipment must not contain any political, religious or personal statements,” reads the rule.

“Slogans, statements or images related to the following are not permitted: any person(s), living or dead (unless part of the official competition name); any local, regional, national or international political party/organisation/group etc; any local, regional or national government or any of its departments, offices or functions; any organisation which is discriminatory; any organisation whose aims/actions are likely to offend a notable number of people; any specific political act/event,” goes the guidance that was supposed to clear any unintentional confusion up.

Your politics will probably playing a big part in the conclusion you reach regarding how many of those boxes British armed forces actually ticks but none certainly seems like a stretch. And the argument about how many will inevitably be both political and divisive. In terms of football, though, it should also be unnecessary.

They might do well to have a bit of a policy review if they are really serious about inclusiveness at the top level

The IFAB clarification was required because the four national associations had made this a major issue. After fines were imposed for breaches of the then rules in 2016, the circular quoted above was issued in September of last year and armbands emblazoned with poppies were worn by all four teams in their games in November.

The IFA’s decision to have its players wear the symbol seemed peculiar given how much work it has done trying to break down barriers between the two communities in the North and its ongoing concern about the young players, James McClean included, that it has lost to the Republic.

Michael O’Neill is in one of the papers today complaining about the FAI poaching Catholics but it is hard to imagine his employers’ stance on this is making the task more difficult for Abbotstown and they might do well to have a bit of a policy review if they are really serious about inclusiveness at the top level.

Even if Glenn, having apologised for the Star of David comment, can somehow still claim that the poppy can be considered neither “political” or “divisive” in England, within the IFA’s jurisdiction it is indisputably both.

The pity for the English FA is that it felt compelled to move with the times. Their colleagues in Belfast, it sometimes seems, cannot quite bring themselves to leave the past completely behind.