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IFA poppy fine: Let's remain on the moral high ground

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By Jim Gracey

In the week leading up to Remembrance Day this year, I had occasion, thankfully rare, to visit the Royal Victoria Hospital.

On leaving, it being a pleasant Spring-like afternoon for early November, instead of taking a bus, I decided to walk back into town along the Falls Road.

It was an enjoyable saunter and, with time on my hands, I even stopped to take in the detail of the intricate murals I'd never seen before close-up... from 1916, through the Palestinian and South African conflicts to the Hunger Strikes and peace once again.

It was an education in more ways than one for this product of a 1970s working class loyalist estate upbringing.

For only on returning to the office and removing my coat did I realise I'd walked down the Falls with a poppy in my lapel.,. and no-one had given me a second glance.

For me, it was further evidence of how much this country has moved on in the right direction towards acknowledging and tolerating one another's differences.

Those murals on the Falls and their messages are as important to the people who painted them as the wearing of the humble poppy is to the tens of thousands who stood at their local Cenotaphs on Armistice Sunday... and in the Windsor Park stands two nights earlier when Northern Ireland played Azerbaijan in a World Cup qualifier which just happened to fall on November 11, Remembrance Day itself.

A simple emblem to mark a simple act of honouring the memory of the millions who made the supreme sacrifice in conflicts down the centuries. No offence given or intended, the taking part a matter of personal choice more widely respected than the manufacturers of controversy every November would have you believe.

Any doctor will tell you, going down the road of constant confrontation is a sure-fire shortcut to an early grave. They'll also tell you if something doesn't agree with you, avoid it.

Just as I chose to stop and marvel at those murals so at odds with the background of my youth, passers-by who couldn't fail to have noticed an emblem marking me out as not from their Road simply chose to walk on by.

I thought about that little scenario when a few weeks later Fifa astonishingly and cackhandedly put Northern Ireland and the other UK associations in the dock for their audacity in ignoring a directive from the football gnomes of Zurich not to mark Remembrance Day.

The poppy, they decreed, is political. And in doing so, they politicised the apolitical.

The decision flew in the face of all reason and now the Irish FA have been fined £12,000 for the 'offence', deemed by Fifa to be at the lower end of the scale from England and Scotland whose players defiantly wore the poppy on their shirts while the IFA, after talks with their football masters, opted to minimise the threatened sanction with a dignified minute's silence and the display of a poppy mosaic in the Kop stand.

Little good the, admittedly, well intentioned attempt to please and appease everyone, did them.

The IFA would have been as well hung for a sheep as a lamb. At least they would have been able to appeal the fine which they cannot now do under Fifa rules (which they appear to make up as they go along).

The amount is no big deal to an IFA cash rich from the summertime Euro finals.

But there is a principle at stake here and some level of measured response is required which is why IFA chiefs have tasked their legal team with examining other options.

It is a hard circle to square. On the one hand, taking it on the chin runs the risk of incurring the wrath of supporters aggrieved by the Fifa stance.

On the other, there are those at the top in the IFA who, rightly, are reluctant to go to war over the poppy, lest they tarnish its symbolism by getting involved in slanging match.

The new suits are the same old Blatter autocracy in another skin. Oblivious to reason, impossible to shame and with no reputation to lose.

Fifa don't do looking the other way otherwise the supposedly errant home nations would have been given a by-ball, as I was on the Falls Road.

In no circumstances should the IFA attempt to justify or explain their Act of Remembrance. Pay the fine, even match it with a donation to the Poppy Fund, and remain on the high moral ground, a Fifa-free zone, content in the knowledge that chastisement from that discredited organisation for doing what is right is a victory for pride over prejudice.

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