Protestant cleric praises James McClean over poppy stance in Remembrance Sunday sermon
A senior clergyman has defended comments during a Remembrance Sunday service in Dublin voicing his admiration for Republic of Ireland striker James McClean for refusing to wear a poppy in the face of constant abuse from the terraces.
In his sermon at St Patrick's Cathedral, Canon Peter Campion described his regard for the Londonderry born winger's stance.
The cleric, who previously served at St Matthew's Church, north Belfast, told a Dublin congregation that included Irish President Michael D Higgins and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan: "James McClean is a national hero. He scored the one and only goal against Wales last month to propel Ireland into the play-off to qualify for next year's World Cup.
"James McClean also refuses to wear the poppy. I admire him for that."
He also said that he admired the West Brom player's "great restraint and integrity in enduring those annual taunts".
He added that his stance must be "very difficult and hurtful for him nonetheless".
And Rev Campion said that the footballer had "never made an issue of it, but others have made it an issue".
However, a Church of Ireland minister from Northern Ireland, who did not wish to be named, told the Belfast Telegraph he was "appalled" by the sermon, describing the comments during a Remembrance Day service about admiring someone for not wearing a poppy as "very, very, very offensive".
He claimed that it was "symptomatic of the increasing (Church of Ireland) split between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland" and urged local bishops to speak out.
But the Rev Campion told this newspaper yesterday: "I was very nervous getting up in the pulpit and saying it, but I think we need to try to move forward.
"I was not deliberately setting out to upset people.
"I began my ministry in Ardoyne in the middle of the Troubles.
"When I began my ministry, I made a point of going to visit the family of anyone who was killed in the area, whether they were Catholic or Protestant. Some people were not pleased, but I thought it was important."
The canon insisted that he would have made the same comments if he was still ministering in his former parish in Woodvale.
He said that people "should not wear the poppy because they feel they have to".
Derryman McClean has spoken about his attitude to the poppy due to its British military connotations.
Being from the city's Creggan area, he said the Bloody Sunday massacre by the Parachute Regiment was still a reminder to him of the "painful presence of British soldiers at that time".
Rev Campion told the Dublin congregation that he chooses to wear a poppy as a tribute to his grandfather and great uncles who served with the British Army in the First World War, and "to remember the 50,000 Irish and others who were not so fortunate".
He added that he did not expect people south of the border to admire him for wearing the symbol, but said that he hoped they respected his choice.
He said that his grandfather, who went on to become a Church of Ireland dean, had found protests outside St Patrick's Cathedral at the end of the Great War "very hurtful".
Rev Campion added that his grandfather had not received a "hero's welcome" when he returned to Ireland.
Instead, he had been "derided and scorned for his decision to enter the British Army".
The canon stated that there were "no longer protests outside the cathedral doors", and "as a nation, we have moved on a great deal".
He added: "It is always a privilege to welcome the President of Ireland to this service, which would have been unheard of not so long ago."
Quoting the poem In Flanders Fields by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, he indicated that the poppy had become "one of the world's most recognised symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict" and said he believed that the poet would be "horrified to think the poppy could become a symbol of division or national identity, or even a fashion statement".
"It is quite simply a symbol of memorial of the grim reality of the terrible loss of life, the heroic and the selfless as well as the needless and the thoughtless," he said.
Two years ago a Church of Ireland rector was asked to step aside after a row with parishoners over the removal or Royal British Legion flags from St Patrick's and St Mary's churches in Newry.
Rev Kingsley Sutton acted against the clear instruction of his bishop in the removal of the banners.
Later he told the congregations that he had decided to remove the flags "to declare a break from the past", but admitted that his actions "may have seemed unusual or even very hurtful".
The Royal British Legion said: "The Royal British Legion takes the view that the poppy represents the sacrifices and contributions our Armed Forces community have made in the defence of freedom; and so the decision to wear it must be a matter of personal choice.
"If the poppy became compulsory, it would lose its meaning and significance.
"The Legion will always defend the rights of individuals who choose not to wear a poppy and we oppose those who attempt to coerce or criticise other people who make this personal choice."
A wreath was laid by President Higgins at the Remembrance service and lessons were read by Mr Flanagan and Ceann Comhairle (Dail Eireann Speaker) Sean O'Fearghail.
Sinn Fein's Mary Lou McDonald was also in attendance.
The Church of Ireland declined to comment.