Belfast Telegraph

Poppy ban by Mid Ulster council slammed by war veterans

By Chris Kilpatrick

War veterans have reacted with fury to a new super council’s ban on poppies, condemning the move as shameful.

The contentious policy was passed at a meeting of the shadow Mid Ulster District Council by 24 votes to 15.

Described by the council as an interim measure, poppies will be not be offered in any council facilities throughout the area ahead of a period of public consultation.

It is the latest controversy to hit a Northern Ireland council after the furore over the naming of a play park in Newry after IRA hunger striker Raymond McCreesh.

The Royal British Legion said the poppy was “non-political” and “entirely neutral”.

And Doug Beattie, a former Royal Irish Regiment captain and recipient of the Military Cross, was last night scathing of the council vote, accusing those behind the decision of using the poppy as a political football.

“It’s an extraordinary decision and it’s a shameful decision,” Mr Beattie, now an Ulster Unionist councillor, told the Belfast Telegraph.

“The poppy is not a political symbol, it is a symbol of remembrance.

“It is a symbol of reverence to those who have given their lives. There’s no distinction, it’s for all — whether they be Catholic, whether they be from England, Scotland or Wales.

“You’ve got to remember the sacrifice of the Irish soldiers during the First World War to see how important it is to remember all.”

Sinn Fein defended the move, claiming it was intended to create a neutral environment in all Mid Ulster council’s public buildings.

Sean McGuigan, who represents the party in Mid Ulster, said: “The Cookstown, Dungannon and Magherafelt areas had different policies on emblems and symbols and we saw the creation of the Mid Ulster Council as an opportunity for a fresh start.”

The move was backed by the SDLP. Its party leader on the council, Michael Kearney, said council employees remained free to wear poppies or lilies if they wished.

“The vote by the Mid Ulster Shadow Council last week in relation to the sale of emblems, including Easter lilies and remembrance poppies, was conducted to bring the differing policies of the previous councils into line with each other,” he added.

“In line with the SDLP’s policy of parity or neutrality in terms of flags, emblems and symbols, our Mid Ulster councillors voted in favour of maintaining neutrality on council properties.”

The Royal British Legion said the poppy was non-political.

“The decision to stock poppies is always at the discretion of individual organisations,” a spokeswoman said.

“We never insist upon such permissions, nor would we ever seek to coerce organisations into allowing collections on their premises.

“The red poppy is a universal symbol of remembrance and hope, it is inclusive of all who wish to wear it, is non-political and is neutral on the causes and consequences of conflict.”

In a joint statement, the DUP and Ulster Unionists accused Sinn Fein and the SDLP of creating a “cold house” for unionists.

DUP group leader Paul McLean and his Ulster Unionist counterpart Trevor Wilson said: “Everything about these decisions stinks to high heaven.

“First you have the manner of the decision; they should have held the full public consultation and full equality impact assessment first.

“Sinn Fein and the SDLP are trying to skew the pitch by ramming these decisions through and then going through the motions on consultation.”

The poppy ban was included in a range of interim policies implemented to tackle divisive issues including flags, emblems and minority languages.

The council has also decided Irish will appear before English on its new logo.

A spokeswoman for Mid Ulster District Council said: “In developing new policies on flags, emblems and language, the council anticipates the need to carry out equality impact assessments, which will not be complete before April 1. In considering an interim approach, the council has decided that the sale of emblems will not take place from council premises.”

Last May, a motion to ban the sale of poppies at Queen’s Students’ Union was defeated.

The proposal, which was put forward by Sinn Fein activist and student Sean Fearon and seconded by Kellyann McAteer, received 40 no votes and 15 yes votes. And in November Londonderry-born Wigan Athletic and Republic of Ireland midfielder James McClean opted not to don a poppy for his club’s match against Bolton Wanderers.

In an open letter to his club chairman, he described how he would support the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal if it were solely for those who fought and died in the First and Second World Wars.

However, he said the Army’s role in the Troubles meant that for him to wear the symbol would “be seen as an act of disrespect to my people”.

‘There are more important bread and butter issues’

Opinion remains divided over the naming of a children’s play park after an IRA hunger striker.

A day after an attempt was made to launch a debate over the possible renaming of Raymond McCreesh park in Newry, some described the row as “nonsense” while others said it was a “disgrace” the facility was named after a “terrorist”.

Pensioner Kieran McCormack who lives at the corner of the park, named on Google maps as Barcroft Park, branded the current debate over its name as “nonsense”.

Emma O’Hagan (17) from Warrenpoint said Newry residents believed its name was irrelevant. “It’s just a place where people can go.”

Maureen McKenna, a pensioner who lives near the park, said she had “no problem with it”, adding said she had explained the “history of the park” to her five-year-old grandchild.

Angeline Kinney (50), a retail employee in Newry, said people “are blowing it all out of proportion. You only have to go round the streets of Belfast to find similar things like this,” she said.

At the Buttercrane shopping centre people with an opposing view said its name was “inappropriate”.

Nurse Heather Johnston (49) said she didn’t agree with it. “I don’t think any normal-thinking person would agree with it. He was a terrorist,” she said.

But Newry butcher Bernardo McKenna (46) said the name didn’t bother him but that there were “more important bread and butter issues” Stormont should be tackling.

“They should let it sit and move on. We need something fresh in Northern Ireland instead of this hamster wheel going on.”

One man, who declined to be named, said the park’s name was “a disgrace” while his wife said the controversy “keeps the rift going between the community” in a town whose two sections otherwise lived in harmony.

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