Belfast Telegraph

Soldier's widow saddened by 'ignorance' after poppy wreaths burnt on Derry bonfire

By Leona O'Neill

A Co Down Army widow has described the burning of two poppy wreaths on a bonfire in Londonderry as "pure hatred", saying it was a deeply hurtful sight for her and her two daughters.

Brenda Hale, whose husband Captain Mark Hale was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, said that those setting light to the symbols of remembrance were displaying their own "historical ignorance".

The wreaths, which had been stolen from the War Memorial in the city's Diamond, were placed on the Bogside pyre alongside Union, UDA, Parachute Regiment and Somme commemoration flags.

"For me it is deeply hurtful and troubling," the former DUP MLA said.

"My husband was killed eight years ago. His anniversary was on Sunday.

"We are dealing with the anniversary of getting that knock on the door this week and we saw this.

"The poppy, to me and my girls, symbolises sacrifice, honour, love for one's country and a love for one's fellow man regardless of race, colour or creed.

"This was a Catholic religious festival that they were supposed to be celebrating.

"The Catholic faith teaches the 10 Commandments. It teaches to love your fellow beings.

"That was pure hatred targeted at one community and we need to dig deeper to try and tackle the hatred at that level.

"It shows that despite the community leaders trying to engage with this particular community they are being challenged by a hardcore.

"And I think that we need to look at how this community understands what democracy is and that freedom of religion is part of democracy, that the people who protect our democracy are the armed forces, who are apolitical."

Mrs Hale said that if she could give one message to the young people who placed the poppy wreaths on the bonfire to be burned, it would be "educate yourselves".

"They don't understand their history," she said.

"I would ask them and I would urge them to learn the armed forces are apolitical.

"Regardless of the government of the day, they can be sent to war and they are sent to protect democracy, freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

"And by putting these symbols on the bonfire they are showing their own historical ignorance for the world to see.

"They should perhaps take some time to understand the whole history of what the poppy means and of the men and women who fought and died in past wars and will fight and die in present and future wars.

"Soldiers who, especially in Northern Ireland, come from across our community."

Sinn Fein MLA Raymond McCartney said the burning of the poppy wreaths was "totally wrong" and that all sides of the community would be offended by the sight.

"I'm totally opposed to anyone using a symbol in the way that it was done, particularly a symbol of remembrance," he said.

"It is totally and absolutely wrong.

"People on both sides of the community will be offended by this. And why wouldn't they be?

"Why wouldn't anyone with any sense of justice approve of any symbol of remembrance being burned? Much in the same way, why would they want the effigies. If it's wrong in Sandy Row, then it's wrong in Nailor's Row in Derry."

Up to 1,000 people gathered at the bonfire on the embankment overlooking the Bogside on Tuesday night to watch the fire.

Agreement had been reached just days before on the location of the pyre after talks between young people and community activists.

The bonfire had been constructed and lit in the middle of the Lecky Road last year after the bonfire builders had their original material seized.

Shortly before midnight trouble erupted in the area around the bonfire and missiles were exchanged from crowds above and below the City Walls.

Three police officers were injured during disturbances and two people were arrested.

PSNI Superintendent Gordon McCalmont said yesterday that police "dealt with minor disorder on the Walls last night during which bottles and other missiles were thrown, however it was brought quickly under control and calm was restored".

"Three police officers sustained minor injuries," he added.

"Two people were arrested, one for public order-related offences and the other for driving-related offences.

"I would like to take this opportunity to thank local community representatives from all sides of our community for their co-operation and engagement over recent days.

"I believe that the disorder last night was kept to a minimum in large part because of the positive influence they have been able to bring to bear."

Bonfires are traditionally lit on August 15 in nationalist areas of Derry to mark the Feast of the Assumption, a Catholic holy day.

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