High Time Media Moved on from Indulging Pseudo-Controversy Surrounding James McClean and “Poppy Issue”

James McClean (Michael Kranewitter, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 3.0/at)
James McClean (Michael Kranewitter, Wikimedia Commons, CC-by-sa 3.0/at).

The media don’t half like flogging dead horses. Right on cue, James McClean‘s move to West Bromwich Albion last week prompted talk in the Belfast Telegraph (not for the first time) of his repeated eschewing of the wearing of a political poppy on his various past clubs’ football jerseys around Britain’s celebration of its Remembrance Sunday each year. This was despite the fact we are half a year on (or away from) November, when the reporting of such a trivial item might have been (or be) remotely relevant, whatever about its questionable justification and newsworthiness.

The Belfast Telegraph article’s headline made the claim that West Brom supporters are “split over [their club’s] signing [of] James McClean after [his] poppy stance” and told us, matter-of-factly, that the Derry man, who was popularly voted Wigan Athletic’s “player of the year” last season, is a “controversial” figure. Is this really so? Is James McClean genuinely, as the Belfast Telegraph might like to have us believe, a person who is splitting reasonable and civil public opinion worthy of serious consideration?

Upon reading the article in question, one will find there is no evidence whatsoever in the body of the text to support the exaggerated assertion made in the headline. (I would like to give the vast majority of West Brom fans a bit more credit than to assume half of them so intolerant that they took issue with their club’s signing of James McClean over his poppy stance.) Of course, it is important to note at this juncture that this is also the same publication that once referred to McClean, an Irish national by blood and birth, as a “turncoat” after he made what he described as a dream decision to represent the de facto all-island Republic of Ireland team at senior international level over the Northern Ireland team. The Belfast paper has form in entertaining and overplaying silly opinions with regard to the Irish international.

McClean, an undaunted Irish republican with a refreshing, admirable and endearing sense of personal conviction atypical of the modern-day footballer, has long been a figure from whom lazy, exploitative and hostile elements within the northern and British media have sought to squeeze attention-grabbing material for non-stories to fill their columns. Indeed, ceaselessly-pontificating unionist politicians (such as the DUP’s Gregory Campbell) have similarly tried to extract controversy from McClean’s cultural identity and preferences for cheap publicity and political mileage. James McClean has nothing of which to be ashamed; he’s a spirited and disciplined athlete who – perhaps somewhat naïvely – has worn his heart on his sleeve. More importantly, however, he does his job.

During a welcome late-March interview with Vincent Hogan of the Irish Independent, the player volunteered his opinion on issues that have unfortunately troubled his career since he moved to England in 2011 from his home-town club, Derry City. In relation to his non-wearing of a poppy on his jersey during a November 2012 English Premier League game for Sunderland against Everton, he said he had felt he was “hung out the dry” by the press office of his former club. Sunderland’s very brief statement to the media on the matter at the time read:

As a club, SAFC wholeheartedly supports the Remembrance commemorations. It was James’ personal choice not to wear a shirt [with a poppy] on this occasion.

Ideally, McClean would liked to have provided a more detailed and thorough explanation of his position (perhaps something more resembling the eloquently-worded letter he was eventually allowed to make public in 2014 by Dave Whelan, the chairman of Wigan Athletic, McClean’s club after leaving Sunderland), not because he was in the wrong, but to eliminate the wildly over-the-top reaction of disapproval (including death-threats, ludicrously) that he unintentionally provoked not just amongst his own club’s booing supporters but also within the British media’s reactionary quarter and on social media. It is also worth highlighting here that his Sunderland manager at the time, Martin O’Neill (like McClean, from County Derry and of a culturally-Catholic nationalist background), did not sport a poppy that day either, but the antipathy from the stands and social media was reserved only for the “young upstart”.

McClean described to Hogan the exacerbation of the situation due to Sunderland’s refusal to allow him to speak further on it as follows:

[P]re-game, the press officer went out and issued a statement saying that I wouldn’t be wearing a poppy, that it was my own decision and that, as a club, they fully supported the poppy appeal.

That just drew attention onto it straight away. I don’t think it would have been anywhere near as bad as it got if that hadn’t happened.

Then when I asked to be allowed speak about it, I was told that that was a bad idea, not to say anything and let it blow over. So it was kind of brushed under the table and I felt that that was more for the club’s benefit than mine.

I think it could have saved so much hassle… when you think two years later I finally get to speak about it… for me, that’s two years too late! It could have been nipped in the bud from day one. Was there any need to make that statement prior to the game? No, there wasn’t.

To this day I still have a kind of annoyance that that was the case. It irritates me. Because with people not knowing my reasons, even my own fans turned on me. They didn’t understand. To them, I was disrespecting their country, disrespecting their fallen heroes, disrespecting their culture, this and that.

Because I was pushed into a corner and not allowed say anything, people didn’t know.

And they turned on me. It affected me because I could do no wrong before that, then all of a sudden I was getting booed every touch. People saying I shouldn’t be in the team and “fuck off back to Ireland!” Stuff like that.

McClean went on to state that he felt “it will always be an issue… [b]ecause there’s a minority of the public who have their views, their strong stances and, regardless of whether I give reasons or not, they’ll just see it as disrespectful”. Unfortunately, his fears appear to be valid; during Wigan’s 2-0 loss to Millwall at the Den after the Hogan interview and towards the end of the last Championship season, he was singled out for poppy-related abuse by the opposing home fans. Indeed, Millwall’s supporters are well-known for their rather unpleasant right-wing brand of terrace politics; “No one likes us; we don’t care!“, they proudly declare.

Local reports in Sunderland also suggested that his former club were enraged by his comments to Hogan about the 2012 affair and it would appear that some Sunderland fans still harbour a significant amount of resentment for their former player despite his later public clarification on the poppy matter last year whilst at Wigan. He is still accused of having disrespected Britain’s war dead and of holding a “pro-IRA stance”; condemned as a “provo” and for having expressed support for republican hunger-striker Bobby Sands, for having displayed images of Free Derry Corner on social media and for having had the supposed temerity to enjoy popular Irish republican folk songs such as ‘The Broad Black Brimmer‘. (Note even this Sunderland Echo article on the rebel song “controversy” oddly and inexplicably filed in the crime section of the publication’s website.) His list of alleged social infractions is long, but also utterly tiresome.

Free Derry Corner in 1984 (Louise Price, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0).
Free Derry Corner in the Bogside, 1984 (Louise Price, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Appreciating some alternative perspective might be advisable for those susceptible to falling to the conclusion that what James McClean says or does is automatically transgressive, scandalous or worthy of genuine public controversy simply because it stirs an all-too-predictable reaction amongst the intolerant, self-righteous and serially-outraged. Neither should it be assumed that the aforementioned “list of shame” presents, even in combination, some valid or damning case against him that would warrant the condemnation directed his way.

Whilst the “provos”, or Sinn Féin (if they indeed are the party to whom McClean offers his republican allegiances) are the largest political party in Ireland and are committed to the constitutional, democratic method after the British government and unionist politicians conceded during the peace process leading up to the cross-communal signing of the Good Friday Agreement that nationalist and republican grievances and interests had merit, Bobby Sands was an elected MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone at the time of his death and remains a widely-respected icon of revolt and disobedience not merely across Ireland but also around the world. Listening to Irish rebel songs and exhibiting a sense of pride in Free Derry Corner is nothing out of the ordinary for a lad from Derry, never mind for one from the hardened republican strongholds of Creggan or the Bogside.

Other Irish players, such as David Meyler from Cork, also happened to voice their liking for ‘The Broad Black Brimmer’ on Twitter at the same time McClean did, but they were not subjected to the same abuse that the oft-reviled Derry man was. Meanwhile, Free Derry Corner is a local historical landmark and was the embodiment (in literally concrete form) of a community in solidarity, action and bold defiance. It remains a cherished symbol of such for the proud local people. The Derry City Council maintained it before handing its maintenance over to the Department of the Environment’s Heritage Service a few years ago with the full support of Sinn Féin and the SDLP on the city council. Popular sight-seeing tour-groups feature a visit to the gable wall in their city tours and it is commonly seen on post cards available for purchase from shops in and around the city. It is an integral part of the fabric of modern Derry’s history.

Other obtuse detractors of McClean have accused him of being a hypocrite happy to take the pound of the queen of England and enjoy the benefits of living in England whilst simultaneously exhibiting disrespect towards the hand that supposedly feeds him, as if living and working in England nullifies any right an individual might have to think or act contrary to some imagined orthodoxy. There is nothing contradictory or self-compromising about a republican, be he or she Irish or British, utilising or accepting as payment for his or her labour what is nothing more than a commonly-agreed medium of exchange. Even if that medium does happen to feature the head of our social, moral and intellectual superior…

The money McClean is paid is money he himself has earned and to which he is fully and legally entitled, whatever his political convictions. He got where he has through his own hard work and determination and certainly does not owe even the slightest ounce of gratitude to the English monarchy for his livelihood and success. Through his work, he also happens to contribute a significant amount in returned tax to the state in which he is resident – likewise, he owes absolutely nothing further to those on their moral high horses who seemingly expect every person resident in the UK to obediently conform to their myopic and authoritarian societal preference by simple virtue of sharing the same space of territory – so he has every moral right to enjoy the benefits of the democratic society of which he is legally resident and to have his also-perfectly-legal political beliefs respected by that society.

McClean’s refusal to wear the poppy was indicative of a very much valid and legitimate position. The poppy is a divisive and contentious symbol in the north of Ireland, for obvious reason, and, whilst those who wish to wear one are entirely free and welcome to do so if they so wish, there is no moral obligation upon anyone anywhere to follow suit and do likewise. Was the choice McClean made as a working resident of Britain not a mere manifestation or exercising of the supposed liberty and freedom we are so often told Allied forces fought to protect during the Second World War? Indeed, what McClean “did” was arguably as much a neutral inaction or non-expression as anything considering it was not he who was deviating from the regular week-to-week routine of wearing a poppy-less jersey.

I do also find it amusing – perhaps I would find it insulting if I was that way inclined – when staggeringly-ignorant Britons pompously instruct anglophone Gaels like McClean that they should be thankful for the supposed fact they would otherwise be speaking in the foreign tongue of German were it not for the sacrifice of Britain’s war-dead in protecting their cultural heritage and well-being; do they not realise that English is not the Gael’s native tongue either? Without wishing to sound clichéd (forgive me; sadly, gentle reminding is required from time to time), eight centuries of English political and military interference, to put it mildly, and a British crown policy of social and economic Anglicisation in Ireland helped make sure of that. (Not that a sustained and effective attempt to authentically revive Gaelic as the primary national language has ever ever been honestly employed by successive Irish governments either since southern independence, but that’s another matter…)

The fundamental problem within Britain’s annual poppy debate has nothing to do with James McClean and dissenters like him; rather, it is that there exists in certain quarters a social expectation that public figures, no matter what their background, ought to conform and wear the symbol with all its baggage. This is what Jon Snow famously referred to as “poppy fascism”, of course. McClean’s opting out did not have to be perceived as a positive act of disrespect at all. He was simply doing nothing – passively carrying on as usual – like so many millions of others around the UK who were not wearing a poppy at the same time. Were those Sunderland fans who later turned against him all wearing poppies at the time? What about those unreasonables frothing with outrage on social media? Highly unlikely!

It was Sunderland, or whoever it is within football that annually tries to force what has become an unedifying spectacle of militarised fanfare, who imposed an uneasy situation upon McClean. For McClean, wearing the politically-loaded poppy would have been disrespecting his community and spitting on the graves of those killed by the British Army in Derry and Ireland. The British Army’s record of shame during the Troubles in the north of Ireland includes the killing of innocent civilians, the internment of civilians without trial, collusion with illegal loyalist paramilitaries, military torture and a systematic intimidation of the nationalist population.

The British Army might well be fancifully thought of as unsullied and faultless heroes by a large section of football fans in England, but those fans must surely be also able to recognise that their perspective simply will not and cannot be a universally-held one. It was admirable that McClean had the guts to do what so many in the public spotlight do not round that time of the year by opting out of the circus. Furthermore, he acknowledged the opposing views and respected the right of others to hold them. Indeed, some sort of harmony might be reached if those condemning him could only reciprocate by appreciating where he comes from in return. Whilst, sadly, there is little chance of that, media outlets like the Belfast Telegraph should, in the meantime, stop leading their readers to believe that unreasonable opinions might have popular merit by indulging in their exposure and repetition under the pretence that they constitute a part of civil debate and public discourse worthy of serious consideration. James McClean should not have to keep explaining himself for the incurably ignorant.

The above piece is also published here on Daniel’s blog.

Daniel Collins is a Manchester-based writer originally from the north-west of Ireland. Matters relating to sport, politics, culture and identity particularly interest him.

You can get in touch with him via daniel_d_collins@hotmail.com or on Twitter at twitter.com/DanielCollins85. It is also possible to follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/danieldavidcollins85.

Daniel maintains a blog of his own at danieldcollins.wordpress.com.