Belfast Telegraph

Better community relations can flower if we learn to treat the poppy with respect

We all have an obligation to accept the 'other' side's symbols with tolerance in a spirit of Christian goodwill. By Martin O'Brien

As a schoolboy of around 12 years of age about 50 years ago, before the outbreak of the Troubles, I was left in no doubt by Brother Osmond, the headmaster of my secondary school in Enniskillen, that I had done, at best, a very silly thing.

One morning, early in November, I went into school wearing a poppy on the lapel of my blazer.

The afternoon before, I had put a few pence into a British Legion collection box (the Royal prefix was added in 1971) on my way home from school, thinking that I was merely supporting veterans still recovering from their injuries and respectfully remembering soldiers who had perished in the two World Wars.

Brother Osmond did not quite see it that way.

During a break from classes, he approached me in the playground and, rather than ask me to remove the poppy, he snatched it from my lapel and told me in no uncertain terms that I should not be wearing what he called "a symbol of British imperialism".

One doesn't forget such things.

I was taken aback and I think I blurted out something about honouring the dead as he marched off.

But who was I to argue with my headmaster, a man from Waterford, whom I regarded with awe, wearing a clerical collar to boot.

I should add that he was a very good headmaster, who wanted the best for his boys and his overall tutelage must have helped me to become only the second pupil of that school - now St Joseph's College - to go to university.

It was also a school where I was taught to respect Protestant as well as Catholic clergymen and told to salute them when I met them in the street.

The experience left me in no doubt, at that early age, that somehow or other the poppy, or more precisely what it represented and/or was perceived to represent, did not enjoy support - let alone acceptance - in my community.

Half-a-century on, that is still the case.

No one attending a GAA match this Sunday, or cheering for the Republic against Denmark in the pub, and hardly anyone at Mass in any church in Northern Ireland, will be wearing a poppy.

For reasons - many of them historical - that we need not go into in great detail here, that is the reality and if we are to live up to the principle of parity of esteem we all should accept and respect that fact of life in a spirit of tolerance and respect for diversity.

That said, in the interests of fairness and of truth, it is worth further saying that at least a good part of the reason for Catholic and nationalist aversion to the wearing of the poppy has its roots in the historical distaste in the unionist establishment for acknowledging the sacrifice of Irish Catholic nationalists in the two World Wars.

The most egregious example of this was the failure of Belfast Corporation to honour, in his lifetime, James Joseph Magennis VC, the only Northern Ireland native to receive the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the Second World War, an injustice acknowledged candidly and courageously by Peter Robinson while First Minister.

Only this week, the elderly son of an RUC sergeant, the most moderate of nationalists you can imagine, who lost two relatives who were brothers in Flanders in the Great War, told me: "The unionists hijacked the poppy and remembrance and gave the cold shoulder to Catholics who wanted to join in."

Maybe I am just imagining it, but there appears to have been less public rancour this year about the wearing (or non-wearing) of poppies in the period leading up to Armistice Day tomorrow and Remembrance Sunday and that may indicate some baby steps towards greater maturity and tolerance.

However, the atmosphere has been soured by the unfortunate and needless failure to agree a site for a completed memorial to the victims of the Poppy Day Massacre in Enniskillen 30 years ago this week.

One does not have to know all the details to discern that such an unedifying affair is not fair to the relatives of those who died and not good for community relations. The sooner the Catholic Church authorities and relevant others in the town can resolve this, the better.

As recently as a few years ago, BBC Northern Ireland insisted that broadcasters who did not wish to wear a poppy on screen during Remembrance-tide - a not unreasonable stance, given the respective national identities in this society who are served by the BBC - had to remain off-screen for the duration.

Nowadays, presenters are free to choose whether to wear the poppy, or not, during their broadcasts, and no one seems to mind very much.

That is progress, as is the initiative of the Taoiseach (a title once banned in the BBC), Leo Varadkar, to honour the sacrifice of around 50,000 Irishmen, Protestants and Catholics, in the Great War, by wearing "a shamrock poppy" that bears the words "Lest We Forget".

Varadkar's move is as welcome as it is significant, because it builds on the efforts of the Irish authorities in recent decades, most notably during the presidency of Mary McAleese, to attempt to make up for the airbrushing out of the national narrative of those Irishmen who lost their lives in places like the Somme, Flanders and Gallipoli, or were shunned, or despised, when they returned home to a transformed Ireland post the 1916 rising.

The failure, for too long, of what we might call "official Ireland" to recognise and honour that sacrifice and the embarrassment (and worse) that this caused to countless families of former soldiers was brought home to me last year when, on a visit to the Somme and the battlefields of Flanders, I spoke to people from Dublin, who had pilgrimaged to where their great-grandfathers and great-grand-uncles had fallen.

The poppy and even the shamrock poppy may never be symbols that the communities here can unite around, but that does not absolve all of us from our responsibility to listen to our respective aspirations and fears with mutual respect and roll up our sleeves and practice tolerance at every opportunity in a spirit of Christian goodwill.

Martin O'Brien is a journalist and communications consultant and a award-winning former BBC producer

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