For an Irish footballer who lives in England, it’s a source of annual abuse.
For the Prime Minister of Ireland, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, it’s now become a new cause for derision.
And for a small, but brave, number of high-profile people in Britain, including Channel 4 television presenter Jon Snow, not wearing one is a courageous statement in the face of a wave of xenophobia and jingoistic nationalism.
The red poppy.
Is it right to wear one on Remembrance Sunday? And is it ever right for an Irish person to wear a symbol which honors the members of the British Army?
An Taoiseach broke new ground when he became the first Irish leader to brandish a poppy in the Dail this week. It hardly came as a shock, given that this is the leader who tweeted about remembering “where he was when Princess Diana died” on the day two homeless people died on the streets of Dublin.
Many Irish people have a very problematic history with the British Army, even though more than 200,000 men served with the crown forces during World War One. Is it right that we remember their sacrifice?
Others will point out that the same army executed 14 leaders of the 1916 Easter Rising, taking out some of the greatest minds of early 20th century Ireland in the midst of that conflict.
It was because of their sacrifice, and the huge wave of anger which swept across the country following their executions, that most of Ireland gained independence from Britain after hundreds of years of oppression.
Is it really appropriate that the leader of the Irish Republic should wear a poppy to commemorate an army which caused so much pain throughout Ireland?
Footballer James McClean doesn’t think so. Growing up in Derry, he knew all about the 14 innocent people – marching for civil rights – who were gunned down by members of the British Army in his neighborhood.
He wasn’t even born when ‘Bloody Sunday’ left an indelible scar on his city in January 1972, but he grew up with full knowledge of the stories of the ordinary, innocent people who were gunned down for the ‘crime’ of taking part in a peaceful protest march.
On Saturday, the 28-year old Derry native was the target of abuse when fans of a rival team threw bottles, coins, and lighters at him during an English Premier League game. His ‘crime’ was refusing to brandish a red poppy on his team shirt, as he refuses to do every November.
McClean is consistently singled out for abuse during club games in England in the lead up to Remembrance Sunday.
What the abusers fail to grasp or choose to ignore, though, is that McClean grew up within yards of one of the worst atrocities carried out by the British Army during ‘The Troubles.’
He feels he would let down his entire community if he wore a symbol which honors the British paratroopers who shot those 14 unarmed protesters dead on January 30, 1972.
After the initial shock, trauma, and despair, a deep sense of injustice ran through the communities of the Bogside, Brandywell, and the Creggan, where McClean grew up, for almost 30 years.
People used to say that the massacre of innocent civilians was the biggest recruitment drive the Irish Republican Army (IRA) could have asked for and helped to prolong the terrible conflict for another two decades.
The local people had to wait for 28 years before the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, stood up in the London Parliament and apologized to the people of Derry on behalf of the British people.
“What happened should never, ever have happened. The families of those who died should not have had to live with the pain and the hurt of that day and with a lifetime of loss,” said Cameron in June 2010.
“Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The government is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces and for that, on behalf of the government, indeed, on behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.”
For anyone who was in the Bogside that day, marching for civil rights in a sectarian state, the idea that anyone among them should wear a poppy to honor the war dead of the British Empire would simply be unthinkable.
McClean says he is not “anti-British” and he would wear the poppy if it honored the British dead of World War One and World War Two. But he cannot wear it because it remembers those who died in other conflicts since 1945, including those who killed innocent people in his neighborhood in cold blood.
McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy comes amid some soul-searching across the UK over the way in which the poppy has been hijacked by some ultra-nationalists who target anyone who dares not to wear one on British TV.
Last weekend, England cricketer Moeen Ali was criticized vehemently because he had not worn a poppy during a team photo. It turned out that he had worn one earlier in the day and that it just fell off his jacket, but that did not wash with those who engaged in abuse on social media.
The original idea behind the wearing of the red poppy was to honor the one million British soldiers who died, and the two million who were seriously wounded, in the First World War.
Remembrance Sunday now includes all British soldiers who fought in all wars, including the paratroopers who committed the atrocities on the streets of Derry in 1972 or those who executed the 1916 rebel leaders in Kilmainham Gaol.
Money raised goes to the Royal British Legion, who help out those who have suffered terrible losses and injuries in more recent conflicts such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It seems that the British Government would rather ordinary people direct their ire at hate figures such as James McClean than focus on how poorly they look after 21st century veterans when they return home from war.
This week, the people of Enniskillen also held a dignified ceremony to remember the 11 people who were killed and more than 70 injured by an Irish Republican Army bomb during a Remembrance Day commemoration in the center of the town. Enniskillen is just 50 miles from Derry.
A grim reminder that innocent lives were lost on all sides during ‘The Troubles’ and that atrocities were also carried out by the IRA during the conflict.
Perhaps it’s time we found a new ‘poppy’ to honor all of the victims of war. A few years ago, a campaign began to wear a white poppy in Britain which would include all of those who died. Until that, though, the wearing of a divisive poppy which only commemorates one side is unthinkable for some people on the island of Ireland.
Ciaran Tierney is a journalist, blogger, and digital storyteller, based in Galway, Ireland. Find him on Facebook at facebook.com/ciarantierneymedia
Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter, @ciarantierney.
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