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Downpatrick Legion goes recruiting to save Remembrance Sunday parade

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Surprise: Margaret Ritchie

Surprise: Margaret Ritchie

Surprise: Margaret Ritchie

Fears are growing this year’s Armistice Day parade in Downpatrick could be the town’s last.

An approximate loss of 100 local Royal British Legion (RBL) members over the last 20 years has sparked concern from branch officials.

Potential financial pressures were avoided three years ago when the branch’s social club on Church Street closed its doors.

Since then, all necessary meetings have been held in a Church of Ireland hall to accommodate the dwindling numbers.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and next Sunday mourners will pause for two minutes at 11am to remember the war dead.

But the annual event could be coming to an end in the Co Down town after many years.

Raymond Martin (70), the deputy chairman of the Downpatrick RBL branch, has been a member for 42 years. He said there has been great difficulty in attracting younger people to join the organisation.

“Over the years our membership hasn’t increased,” he said. “People have died off from old age or illness.

“We haven’t managed to get any new blood in. We want new blood in to take over the officers’ roles.”

The RBL now accepts new members from a non-military background under one umbrella membership. However, the initiative hasn’t paid off in Downpatrick.

Mr Martin added: “I’d like to see new people coming forward to join us and within a year take over the positions that we’re in now and allow them to continue to run the place.”

The long-serving official has carried the legion’s standard for 30 years and said it would be terrible to lose the most iconic day in the remembrance calendar.

“To lose an event like the Remembrance Sunday parade would be awful,” he added.

“It’s about the people that went before us and died, for the people who joined all over the years and served well within the legion and now we’re in the position were we can’t serve any more.”

Former SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie, who once described the decision to wear a poppy as “a hard one to make”, shared her surprise at the news.

She was the first nationalist leader to wear a poppy at a remembrance service back in 2010, when she attended the cenotaph in Downpatrick.

“The wider community in the northern part of south Down, or those who attend Remembrance Day in Downpatrick, might be a little surprised and perhaps taken aback by such a decision because it’s the normal course of events,” she said.

“People have the right to attend if they so wish. I’ve always believed people should be given that opportunity.”

Ms Ritchie, who is recovering from breast cancer, has advised leaders within the Downpatrick branch to get in contact church leaders who may be able to offer guidance and assistance.

DUP councillor William Walker believes that a new recruitment drive is needed to attract younger people to the RBL.

He criticised them for not “understanding the sacrifice” made in previous wars.

“I think we all need to get behind Downpatrick RBL and help,” he said.

Belfast Telegraph