Symbols can be very powerful in politics, particularly in Northern Ireland. Another Remembrance Sunday has passed and the wearing (or not wearing) of a poppy remains divisive for many.
Commonly unionists wear a poppy and nationalists don’t. For those of us who do not define ourselves in such terms the decision can be a difficult one.
Personally, I am not one for symbols. I don’t wear a Green Party badge, I don’t tend to go for the charity arm bands and before entering politics I did not wear a poppy. Not because I was making any kind of political statement but precisely because I did not want to make any kind of political statement.
As a politician that is no longer an option. If I do not wear a poppy it will be perceived by many as a political statement and they may conclude that I am a nationalist. If I wear a poppy it will be perceived by many as a political statement and they may conclude that I am a unionist.
As the leader of a party that does not define itself in these terms, either perception could be damaging.
As the leader of a party which promotes peace, the wearing of a red poppy may be seen to legitimise war.
Some feel that Remembrance Day has been hijacked by those wishing to promote current wars. This is a view shared by a number of veterans. We must remember it is politicians who are the perpetrators of war whereas soldiers (and civilians) are the victims. It is the soldiers whose lives we seek to commemorate with the poppy not the politicians.
The white poppy which promotes peace and is a symbol to mark the victims of all conflicts on all sides, can also be viewed as divisive.
Despite the fact that it is inclusive of those who have died fighting on the British side, some see it as an insult to the red poppy and what it represents. And while I disagree with this assessment it is a time of high sensitivity and mutual respect is required.
I have come to the conclusion that the wearing of both the white poppy and the red poppy is for me the best way forward. Most people don’t understand it so they may ask me about it and allow me the opportunity to explain a different point of view.
We need to complicate our history because the simple categorising of ‘us and them’ has not served us well. Protestant and Catholic, nationalist and unionist fought together.
I was delighted that on Saturday I attended a coffee morning hosted by Ploughshare in St Comgall’s Catholic Church Hall in Bangor. There were a mix of those with and without poppies and there was no contention.
One of the freedoms which we should cherish today is the freedom to choose how we remember the victims of war. And of course our democracy allows us the right to dissent.
In 1986, John Baker, Bishop of Salisbury stated,
“Let’s not be hurt if we see a white poppy … there is plenty of space for red and white to bloom side by side.” This Green agrees.