The decision to wear a poppy on Remembrance Sunday was “a hard one to make”, SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie has revealed.
The MP for South Down made history yesterday becoming the first leader of the nationalist party to wear the emblem on the day which marks the sacrifice of millions of war dead.
The poppy has been a controversial symbol in Northern Ireland, often dividing unionists from nationalists.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph in Downpatrick yesterday, Ms Ritchie said wearing the poppy was the right move to make, but admitted it was a hard choice.
“It was a very difficult decision,” she said.
“I know the poppy has become a bit of a political football. But at the end of the day, if you want to share the future then you have to be able to share and understand, our history and past.”
Ms Ritchie travelled to Messines in Flanders last year where she laid a wreath. But she said the move to wear the poppy on Remembrance Sunday was a way to lead the “community forward”.
“It is a very significant day,” she said.
Ms Ritchie added that although the SDLP opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a number of her constituents based in Ballykinler had made the “ultimate sacrifice in the recent conflicts”.
“Many, many Irish nationalists died in two world wars. I firmly believe in developing and building a shared future,” she added.
Ms Ritchie was among a large crowd of over 200 people who participated or attended the Remembrance Parade and Service organised by the Royal British Legion, Downpatrick Branch.
Her move has been welcomed by unionist politicians.
Ulster Unionist councillor Bob Stoker, whose son was badly wounded serving in Afghanistan, said it demonstrated how communities “have moved on.”
Brian Maguire from the Royal British Legion in Northern said: “Wearing a poppy is entirely a personal choice. The British Legion welcomes support from any quarter.”
Wreaths were laid at cenotaphs and two minute silences were observed at ceremonies throughout the province yesterday.
Belfast, Londonderry, Enniskillen and Bessbrook were among the main services |organised by the Royal British Legion.
Tributes to the war fallen were led at Belfast City Hall by the SDLP Lord Mayor Pat Convery.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Owen Paterson, the Lord Lieutenant of Belfast and Former Olympic gold medalist Dame Mary Peters also attended the ceremony.
Chief Constable Matt Baggott also laid a wreath during the service.
In Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh DUP MLA and DETI Minister |Arlene Foster was among hundreds of people who attended the annual Remembrance commemorations.
Tributes were also paid in Bessbrook, Co Armagh.
Londonderry SDLP Mayor Colum Eastwood and Belfast Lord Mayor Pat Convery also wore poppies.
Mervyn Elder, from the Royal British Legion in Northern Ireland, said: “We are not insisting that everybody should conform and wear a red poppy.
“All that we ask is that everyone remember those brave men and women, past and present, who didn’t declare war, but go because of their service.
“And obviously because of the sacrifice they make we are still in a position to remember them.”
Mr Convery said the poppy should be seen “purely as a symbol of that act of commemoration”.
“There can be no greater duty for the First Citizen of our city than to work for a shared society and the reduction and removal of all that divides.
“The poppy should be seen purely as a symbol of that act of commemoration.”
Analysis: A small flower, but a huge statement
As the Last Post sounded in Downpatrick, Margaret Ritchie blended into the crowd.
Throughout the service she was just like the hundreds of others standing in silence trying to keep warm.
And like everyone else she watched as numerous wreaths were poignantly placed at the base of the war memorial for those who had given the “ultimate sacrifice” for their country.
And again, like all those who had gathered in the cold winter sun to commemorate the war dead, a small red poppy was pinned to her coat.
But unlike the other men, women and children, that small flower on her coat made a very large statement.
As the first nationalist |leader to wear the flower on |Remembrance Sunday it is, in the words of the South Down MP, the signal a new “progressive nationalism”.
“It is about moving the community forward,” she said.
“I believe, as Wilfred Owen said, about the futility of war.
“It is the lost lives and it is the families who are left behind to mourn.
“Today is about that act of remembrance.”
She smiled when asked if she has the support of the public.
“I’ve had a good response from people right across the community and people are quite anxious to move on.”
Among those who welcomed the move was war veteran Rory Richardson from Armagh (78).
“Yes, it is symbolic, I think it should be welcomed and it is time to move on,” Mr Richardson said.
“When the Germans bombed Belfast they didn’t sort out the Protestant houses from the others.”
Henry Hull, Dean of Downpatrick Cathedral, also praised the nationalist leader.
“I think it is wonderful. Margaret is very much committed to representing the whole community and I think what she is doing is excellent.
“Remembrance Day should not be political. It’s remembering the tragedy of war, which is common.”