Belfast Telegraph

Remembrance Sunday: Despite the examples of solidarity, it is an act that still divides

By Ivan Little

The slow march of change over how Ireland remembers its thousands of citizens who died fighting wars in British uniforms has inched forward as more and more representatives of the Irish government attended memorial services throughout the United Kingdom, including, for the first time in 68 years, the Cenotaph ceremony in London.

At Whitehall, the Dublin ambassador to Britain, Dan Mulhall, laid the first Irish wreath since 1946.

In Enniskillen, for the third year in a row, the Taioseach Enda Kenny took part in a remembrance service where thoughts were also with the 11 people killed in the IRA's Poppy Day massacre in 1987.

At the cenotaph in Belfast, the Irish foreign affairs minister Charlie Flanagan represented the Dublin government in front of crowds which are believed to have been swollen by the fact that 2014 is the centenary of the outbreak of World War One during which 48,000 soldiers from north, south, east and west of Ireland were killed.

The increased participation of officials from the Republic in this year's remembrance ceremonies is the latest move by Dublin to show that age-old hostilities between Ireland and Britain are a thing of the past and to stress the importance of recognising the island's wartime sacrifices.

Mr Flanagan said people from a diverse range of backgrounds and opinions in Ireland had been killed and he added: "It's important to accentuate what we have in common rather than our differences."

While Ambassador Mulhall was undoubtedly breaking new ground in London, his own statement about his attendance at the Cenotaph made it clear that he wasn't remembering every British soldier who died in every conflict.

He said he was honoured to be laying a wreath "in remembrance of the 50,000 Irishmen who died in World War One".

No matter what was in Mr Mulhall's mind, his involvement in the service can't be seen as anything but another building block in the normalisation of relationships between two former foes, a process which was cemented by the Queen in May 2011 after she honoured Irishmen and women who died fighting for independence.

Her laying of a wreath and bowing her head in a silent tribute in Dublin's Garden of Remembrance took even Sinn Fein sceptics by surprise.

The naysayers have, however, pointed out that while the Queen left a huge poppy wreath in Dublin, the Irish representatives yesterday all laid laurel wreaths.

"But does it really matter?" said one Royal British Legion source.

"Things are moving on. And let's not forget Sinn Fein have also recognised the need for the dead to be remembered, especially among the Catholic community north and south who shied away for years from acknowledging what their loved ones had done."

Only the most blinkered of observers would claim that the sensitivities over poppies and remembrance have gone away though.

In many nationalist towns around Northern Ireland there was barely a poppy to be seen, even though in a number of places they were being sold openly.

"We sell plenty," one Legion volunteer told me. "But many people are afraid to wear them in case they attract the unwanted attention of young people who still see the poppy as a symbol of Britishness and unionism".

The contrasts in attitudes were also reflected at a number of sporting venues.

Whereas the Remembrance weekend was by and large ignored at events played by nationalists, at many Irish League football grounds periods of silence were observed and a number of teams wore black armbands.

Linfield Football Club, whose supporters are almost exclusively Protestant, but whose players are now drawn from mixed backgrounds, went to extraordinary lengths to remember their former footballing stars who died in the Great War.

On Saturday, Royal British Legion standard bearers led the team onto the Windsor Park pitch and the players wore jerseys with poppies on them.

On Twitter however a number of nationalists criticised Linfield for mixing politics and sport and said that a number of their players weren't comfortable "due to the conflict here".

Footballers across the water also had poppies embroidered onto their shirts, though one high-profile footballer from the Creggan area of Londonderry has consistently refused to do so.

James McClean said he had complete respect for people who fought and died in both World Wars and added that if the poppy was only a symbol for the two conflicts, he would wear one.

Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers, from a nationalist village in Co Antrim, was also caught up in the poppy row.

He was attacked by a number of social media users from nationalist backgrounds for wearing a poppy but was also lauded by backers from the unionist tradition.

As far as remembrance goes, you can be damned if you do and damned if you don't, with no end to the the war of words over wars.

Belfast Telegraph


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