When I was a boy living in Cushendun, every November a neighbour came round selling poppies to raise money for the British Legion. Each year my mother made a contribution and took a poppy. It was the sort of cross community exchange, though we didn’t think of it as such, that helped make the Glens of Antrim a welcoming place for everyone. There were limits however to the gesture. The poppy sat where it was placed. I don’t remember anyone ever wearing it. That’s not surprising. As far as I’m aware, no one in my family ever served in the Crown forces apart from a great-uncle who was a member of the RIC. I don’t state that with pride or shame. It’s just a matter of fact.
Poppies didn’t impinge much on my life for several decades after until I started working for UTV. Even then as an off screen producer and editor, I wasn’t asked or expected to wear a poppy. If there ever had been a rule on emblems, by the time I started to appear in front of camera, reporters and presenters were left to choose whether to wear poppies or not.
That freedom left me with a bit of a dilemma. I could wear the emblem and alienate one section of the audience or not wear it and annoy another group. So with no personal or family reason for wearing a poppy and anxious not offend anyone, I tried to sidestep the problem by the simple ruse of trying, as far as possible, not to appear in vision on TV during periods when poppies were due to be worn.
That worked until one November just before I was due to do a live interview in studio, a colleague asked me if I realised that I was not wearing a poppy. At that point, for some reason, I looked up and caught sight several longstanding Protestant colleagues. And then my brain went into overdrive. Fundamentally I had nothing against this fund raising campaign even if I had some questions over whether poppies were about commemorating or glorifying war. But my instinct was to stick to my guns and pass on the poppy wearing and then for whatever reason, it just dawned on me that these workmates, that I could see out of the corner of my eye, would like me to make a concession. And so, not as a some grand gesture but simply because I wanted to oblige those who over decades had obliged me with small acts of generosity, I asked to be supplied with a poppy, versions of which I would continue to wear until I retired from the company
It was only later on reflection that I realised my change of heart had not come about through argument or debate. The silence of my colleagues had proved more eloquent and effective than anything, anyone might have said to me.
My experience is not in any way unique. In an article entitled: The power of the personal: what Ireland can teach politicians,(£) Financial Times columnist Gillian Tett analysed the way gay activists had so successfully conducted the movement down South for same-sex marriage. She said the campaigners did not focus on ideology or statistics. Instead they encouraged voters to think of people they knew personally who were gay and then ask themselves if these individuals deserved the same rights as everyone else. She quoted American anthropologist E Moore Quinn who said: “In Ireland, the campaign was all about a person, not a policy.”
The lessons from the South could usefully be applied here. Currently if unionists want something from nationalists or vice versa, the formula is: announce the demand by foghorn, gulder about tradition or rights or both and then get on to the phone in programmes to row about it.
It doesn’t work and will never work. What’s more the participants must know it’s not effective but they still keep on with the argy bargy. I don’t suggest a different approach would be easy but it might conceivably deliver some positive results.
This is not, by the way, to dismiss the importance of rights or tradition which would be ridiculous but since politics is the art of possible not the impossible, it surely would make sense to change tack and abandon the battering ram tactics.
Our politicians might find they will get further with a policy by inviting their opponents to view it through the eyes of a third party. It would be preferable if that individual was someone their adversaries had more time for. If they can’t bring themselves to do that, at the very least they should dispense with the political equivalent of the boxing ring trash talk which many of us find less than amusing even if it wins the headlines.