Poppy should be a symbol of remembrance, not weapon of cultural warfare it has become
If you believe in freedom of conscience, then you must support the right to reject the emblem, says Fionola Meredith
The annual unseemly scrap over who is or, more likely, who is not wearing a poppy has started up again. As per usual, the Derry-born footballer James McClean, who plays for Stoke City and the Republic of Ireland, is under scrutiny, since he has refused once more to wear a poppy on his team shirt.
This is nothing new. The 29-year-old has done the same at all his previous clubs: West Bromwich Albion, Wigan Athletic and Sunderland.
"I know many people won't agree with my decision or even attempt to gain an understanding of why I don't wear a poppy," McClean said, of his most recent poppy refusal. "I accept that but I would ask people to be respectful of the choice I have made, just as I'm respectful of people who do choose to wear a poppy."
When previously challenged on the issue, he explained: "For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles - and Bloody Sunday especially - as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of the First World War and Second World War. It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people."
McClean's club, Stoke City, has no problem with the player's stance. It issued a statement, emphasising its support for the Royal British Legion's Poppy Appeal and its "proud" connection with the armed forces, but said that nobody "should be forced or even pressured to wear the poppy against their free will". Indeed, the Royal British Legion itself acknowledges that the decision whether or not to wear a poppy is a personal one.
And there the matter should rest, shouldn't it? But it won't, because this little red paper flower, on its green plastic stem, is perennially used as a weapon of cultural warfare. Too often, the rows over the wearing of it become the central focus, rather than the solemn act of remembrance and gratitude that it's intended to represent.
Look, I can see why some people find McClean's attitude - or rather, its political implications - disturbing, inflammatory, even repugnant. Especially given the wider republican aptitude for re-writing history along the lines of "we had to shoot people in the name of equality". It's amazing how mainstream that crazy narrative has become.
Sensitivities are running particularly high in the context of the recent commemoration for the Shankill bomber Thomas Begley, during which Sinn Fein councillor Seanna Walsh stated that "there can be no hierarchy of victims".
To anyone who's even halfway normal, claiming a moral equivalence between a man who blew himself up with his own bomb and the innocent men, women and children he murdered, sounds both barbaric and psychotic.
And if McClean seeks respectful understanding for his position, and the avoidance of controversy, he certainly has not helped himself in the past. In 2013, he tweeted about his love for the Irish rebel anthem The Broad Black Brimmer, after which he disappeared rather abruptly from Twitter. It was reported that his club at the time, Sunderland, had banned him from the platform.
But whether any of us approve, or not, of McClean's rejection of the poppy is neither here nor there. The point is that we live in a free, democratic society where individuals are at liberty to choose the causes they support, or oppose, no matter what others think of their position.
This freedom was decisively underscored by the recent Supreme Court judgment in the Ashers case, which found that LGBT activist Gareth Lee had not been discriminated against when the bakery refused his order for a cake bearing the words 'support gay marriage'. The unanimous verdict demonstrated that people should never be forced to enable views or causes that they profoundly disagree with.
In the same way, James McClean is entitled to refuse to wear the poppy, because of his own political standpoint. If you agree with the Ashers verdict, as a great many people in Northern Ireland do, then by extension you must support McClean's right to say no.
Either you believe in freedom of conscience or you don't.
And respect, to be genuine, must be freely given. You cannot force someone to feel respect, nor should you try.
What happened on Bloody Sunday was obscene, unconscionable. But what the ordinary British (and Irish) soldiers in the world wars were fighting for, and dying for, was freedom.
It's in great part thanks to them that McClean has the liberty to exercise his personal choices today.