On Sham Fights, the Poppy & the Lily

As October passes and November’s lengthening nights are upon us, we enter once again into one of the many groundhog phases of our political calendar in Northern Ireland: the annual poppy spat.

Each year, without fail, our politics is temporarily dominated by squabbles and episodes of faux outrage resulting from decisions by political and community leaders in a divided society to refrain from participating actively in remembering the war dead of one set of combatants.

No, I’m not talking about the issue of the non-attendance of unionist politicians at Arbour Hill, Bodenstown or Milltown annually. Nor am I talking about the gross offence caused by unionist politicians not laying wreaths nor wearing Easter Lilies to such gatherings (see what I did there?)

Rather, I’m referring to the decision taken by republicans annually to decline attending British Remembrance events- though republicans have, for more than a decade now, notably laid  wreaths at the British Cenotaph at Belfast City Hall in a gesture of respect for Irishmen who died in World War I in British uniforms.

I wrote this piece five years ago on the very topic of Nationalism and the poppy. Little has changed in the time that has since passed.

In Craigavon, they’re not used to having non-unionists hold high political office and therefore opinions deviating from the unionist norm have historically not featured in the mainstream Council narrative. Keeping Craigavon British has long meant denying legitimacy to The Other through refusing to support the rotation of civic posts amongst non-unionists- not least the lead party within nationalism, Sinn Fein.

Consequently, the decision of the first ever Sinn Fein deputy mayor of Craigavon (not mayor, for that would be going too far for loyal Craigavon), Catherine Seeley, to decline attending the British Legion’s Remembrance Day service has prompted an “emotional” response from DUP Cllr Carla Lockhart.

Let me help Cllr Lockhart out.

The attendance of nationalists and republicans at Remembrance services for deceased British combatants is as logical- or more appropriately, illogical- as unionists attending Irish republican commemorations at Easter time.

Ah, but what about all those Irishmen who fought in World War I, I hear you say? Shouldn’t they be remembered?

Short answer? Of course. And they are, and indeed have been for close on two decades in one form or another across nationalist Ireland. And that is entirely appropriate, for airbrushing history is no basis for a settled, shared and just society at peace with itself.

The life and tragic death of Francis Ledwidge during World War I, war poet/Irish patriot/British soldier, personifies the somewhat contradictory story of Nationalist Ireland during that period which has been told and retold many times in the past decade and beyond.

But it remains as utterly absurd to expect Nationalist Ireland to don poppies and embrace British Remembrance services aimed at remembering all those who died militarily in pursuit of Britain’s interests- including those in Ireland wearing the regimental colours of the Parachute Regiment, Black Watch or indeed UDR- as it would be to demand unionists don Easter lilies and remember all those who died fighting for Irish independence just because many Irish protestants were amongst the ranks of the rebel Irish in both 1798 and during the 1916-23 period.

So let’s put an end to the annual sham fight.

Those wishing to don poppies and attend British Remembrance ceremonies are entitled to expect to be respected in remembering their dead just as much as those who will- or won’t – don Easter lilies to recall Ireland’s Patriot dead at different times of the year.

In time, I would hope our newly amalgamated district councils and the political leaders at Stormont could adopt protocols requiring those holding civic or Executive office to attend at least one remembrance ceremony/event dedicated to remembering those who fell in pursuit of both Britain and Ireland’s causes throughout a calendar year, in November and at Easter, as a means of very publicly demonstrating respect for our differing traditions.

We’re not there yet, but this road has only one destination.