Belfast Telegraph

Alf McCreary: They fought and died together... why can’t we pay tribute together?

Perhaps some day the Act of Remembrance and the poppy will be recognised much more widely in our island society as a condemnation of all warIn two days’ time, there will be an Act of Remembrance at cenotaphs and in churches throughout the United Kingdom to mark the sacrifices of two World Wars, and in the many conflicts since then.

Each service will be dignified, and a reminder that the horrors of war should never be forgotten.

In our fast-moving world, many people want to move on from the past, but there are certain things which we all should remember.

In the rest of the UK, the Act of Remembrance and the respect for military service is a long-established part of the nation's tradition.

Sadly, the differing attitudes to this in Northern Ireland is part of our painful history and our divergent cultures.

This was shown clearly last Sunday when the battle veterans from the Royal Irish Regiment marched through Belfast, on their return home from Afghanistan.

They were cheered on by a very large crowd of people waving Union flags, but not far away the riot police kept apart another large group from Sinn Fein, who were holding counter-protests.

Both groups were exercising their rights, but it was a depressing reflection on the potential for confrontation that still exists in our society, after more than 10 years of the “peace process”.

The cost of policing Sunday's march and the counter-demonstrations was a colossal £300,000, but if they had not passed off relatively peacefully, the political cost would have been even higher.

At the centre of the concept of Remembrance is the humble poppy, which symbolises the Flanders' fields which witnessed some of the worst fighting in the First World War.

The sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division will be embedded forever in the Northern Ireland psyche.

Nevertheless, people on all sides should never forget the service of other soldiers of different faiths and communities on this island who fought side by side in Flanders, and elsewhere, amid the mud and the blood.

The poppy symbolises this sharing and sacrifice on all sides, and it would be wrong to suggest that many Northern Protestants and Catholics do not recognise this.

Even the late Martin Meehan, the Sinn Fein activist, paid tribute to his forebears who had fought in the Flanders conflict.

The suffering has touched all communities and all generations. Yet the differing attitudes to Remembrance is even more marked in the Republic.

During a visit to Dublin this week, I did not see a poppy being worn by anyone in the city centre.

In fact the only poppies saw were those worn by people in the Enterprise train who were returning to the North.

This might suggest that the majority of people in the Republic do not care about Remembrance or about the poppy as the symbol of sacrifice. Nevertheless, in recent years the Royal British Legion has reported increased poppy sales in the Republic, and Remembrance services will be held there in a number of Protestant churches on Sunday.

Perhaps the symbol of the poppy is still a flower too far for public show or debate in the Republic, but in both jurisdictions the Act of Remembrance has an importance and an integrity that lives on.

In a free society no-one should be forced to accept these things. If that were so, the sacrifice of the men and women who died for democratic freedom would have been pointless.

Perhaps some day, however, the Act of Remembrance and the poppy will be recognised much more widely in our island society as a condemnation of all war as a means of trying to solve human differences, and also a recognition that people have a right to feel differently about such matters.

When we all feel that we can share our past and truly rise above the symbolic divisiveness that has plagued us for so long, then the historic and huge sacrifice of so many Protestants and Catholics and people of other faiths and none, will not have been in vain.

Belfast Telegraph


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