The Poppy and Irish Nationalism

Remembrance Sunday has arrived. Across the north, many will be gathering to pay tribute to dead soldiers of the two ‘great’ wars of the 20th century. Most of those gathering will also pay tribute to the dead RUC, UDR and British soldiers who were casualties of the conflict in Ireland from 1969, as well as British soldiers killed in other conflicts, including Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of those assembled will also be paying homage to those loyalist paramilitaries who died in the recent conflict in the north of Ireland (many of those gathered will certainly not be interested in incorporating the latter into ‘their’ remembrance services, and some may not be too keen on including those loyal to the Crown who fell in conflicts other than the two World Wars either.)
That is perhaps the most narrative-free comment (if there can be such a thing) that can be made on a day which many will naturally find an emotional one. However, given that the run up to this Remembrance Sunday has once again been marked by a campaign agitating for Nationalist Ireland to conform and pledge its allegiance to Britain’s official date of Remembrance, it is important to respond.
Those participating in the numerous Remembrance Day ceremonies across Ireland today are entitled to do so; indeed, as a republican I must state that one of the darkest days of the conflict was the Cenotaph bombing in Enniskillen which claimed so many lives as people were gathering to remember other lost lives. It was an appalling act in a conflict (like all conflicts) marked by many appalling deeds.
In Britain, the apparent increase in poppy wearing is no doubt linked to the now almost daily news of British soldiers being killed in the latest conflicts involving Britain’s soldiers. That is quite understandable. Some have even suggested that it could be a form of protest at the government policy decisions which led to those soldiers being sent to the very conflict zones from which many are now returning from in coffins. Perhaps that is true, though that presupposes a conscious effort on behalf of the populace to distinguish the soldier from the governing authority which could have repercussions for other remembrance dates (more on that later.)
Yet, as the Guardian has correctly noted, the demand for conformity is disturbing even within Britain, and, in our parochial context, betrays a desire to have a specific narrative legitimised above and beyond others.
The kneejerk unionist reaction to the decision by the Students’ Union at Coleraine to permit the sale of both Poppies and Easter Lilies from the Union shop was entirely predictable as it challenged the simplistic unionist narrative which elevates the commemoration of ‘their’ dead above all others.
That is nothing new. It has become something of an annual tradition for Irish people to be derided for not engaging in Britain’s Remembrance Day ceremonies, almost as if declining to do so was an incomprehensible action. Of course, there are Irish people who do choose to participate, overwhelmingly those identifying themselves as British and/or Northern Irish/Irish, as well as others from an Irish nationalist background who choose to partake in ceremonies which remember not just the dead of the Somme and D-Day, but also the members of the Black and Tans, Parachute Regiment, Black Watch and British Military Intelligence who gained notoriety for their deeds in twentieth century Ireland, as well as those who visited grief on the residents of Amritsar soon after the war to free small nations had concluded.
Some of those from a nationalist persuasion no doubt take the decision to distinguish in their minds the dead from the World Wars from those of others, perhaps choosing to ignore the wreaths commemorating others who wore the British uniforms; others might even take the more sober view that all soldiers are/ were humans, normally from the lower classes, victims of economic conscription as well as compulsory military conscription, all deserving acknowledgement for the manner in which their lives were taken from them.
But a more common reaction within Ireland is to acknowledge the importance of the date for those from a protestant/ unionist background in Ireland and, in the past two decades at least, to acknowledge the deaths of those Irishmen who donned the British uniforms for a variety of reasons during the two world wars, whilst declining to partake in an event which, after all, pays tribute to the very soldiers who implemented the policies and guaranteed the writ of the occupying British forces in Ireland throughout the centuries.
What is often conveniently forgotten in the charge to accuse Nationalist Ireland of not remembering the Irish dead of Britain’s wars in a more visible and pronounced manner is that Irish attitudes to remembrance are considerably more reserved than those of our British counterparts, whether the dead were fighting for Britain or for Ireland, by proxy or otherwise.
Whilst Irish republicans may don Easter lilies to remember our dead at Easter time, the overwhelming majority of Irishmen and women choose not to attach any badges to their lapels in Spring nor Autumn.
It has been suggested in the past that the muted nature of commemorations to celebrate independence in southern Ireland has been a consequence of the IRA’s campaign in since 1969. That may well form part of the answer.
But part of the answer can also be found in the fact that Irish people, unlike their British counterparts, know from their history about the complicated and ugly nature of war due to the legacy of conflict within this island, including the horrific civil war of the early 1920s.
The faces of the dead Asians, killed by Britain’s soldiers in the past decade, make at best a fleeting appearance on our television screens. We do not get to hear the widows (nor widowers) speak nor the children cry in our own language. We don’t hear the stories that turn the individuals from covered bodies into very human beings.
The legacy of conflict in Ireland in the twentieth century has been one that has removed any doubts about the horror of war and made it very difficult to romanticise conflict and indulge in the type of jingoistic, patriotic fervour commonly associated with the British tabloid press.
Nevertheless, the fact that Irish Nationalism has, over the past decade and more, made space for the remembrance of ‘their’ fallen in the two World Wars is to be welcomed. Sinn Fein has struck a chord amongst northern nationalists by choosing to acknowledge the sacrifice of these dead Irishmen in a separate display of remembrance involving the laying of a laurel wreath to mark the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. This has permitted Irish republicans to honour the Irish dead of the First World War without participating in official British ceremonies which require paying respect to Britain’s soldiers who republicans were at war with up to 15 years ago.
There have also been a number of other commemorations- organised by former loyalist leader, Glenn Barr- in which the Irish National flag has been flown alongside the Union Flag to signify that those killed in the First World War were from an Irish nationalist as well as unionist background. Such commemorations are to be welcomed as they take steps to remove the political baggage, recognising the complicated nature of Irish involvement in the world wars.
Of course, there has been a negative reaction from political unionism to these developments. Unionist opposition to this is not only hollow but ridiculous. After all, would they prefer republicans to dishonestly pretend to pay tribute to the very soldiers with whom they were- most recently- engaged in a conflict with for a quarter of a century? If the demand is for recognition of the sorry plight of the fallen soldier in isolation to the commands from his authorities, then does that not have consequences for unionist acknowledgment of the plight of the Irishmen and women who gave their lives for Irish freedom regardless of their hostility to those further up the chain of command?
Given that many of the earliest nominal Irish republicans were of staunch Ulster Protestant stock, then the charge to compel all to embrace Remembrance Sunday as a shared remembrance would logically also seek to demand unionist participation in commemorations remembering Irish republicans who died in the cause of Irish freedom. Food for thought indeed!

Remembrance, like so much else in Northern Ireland, is likely to remain a divisive issue for some time to come. But moves by Irish Nationalism to provide (within the Irish nationalist narrative) a space for unionism to commemorate its British war dead of all wars and to genuinely find a place for the Irish Nationalist casualties of the world wars is a progressive step. The poppy will remain what it is. Irish Nationalism should not, nor does it need to, embrace it: rather, it must simply continue to find a space for those who seek to embrace it within its vision of the future.

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