It seemed the annual poppy debate, like many events in 2020, was cancelled or run with socially distanced measures in place. It was not until Taoiseach Micheál Martin appeared in Enniskillen, laying a wreath on Remembrance Day that the topic resurfaced down in the South. It is not an overly new occurrence of a Taoiseach attending such event. Enda Kenny during his time as Taoiseach, started the tradition and was followed by Leo Varadkar and now Micheál Martin.
However, Martin was spotted wearing a shamrock poppy, a sight which ruffled a few feathers within republican circles. It was an interesting choice, as only three years ago, Martin, commenting on the fact Varadkar had started wearing a shamrock poppy in the Dáil, said he would not wear the shamrock poppy if he became Taoiseach. For those who are unaware, the shamrock poppy specifically commemorates Irish people who died fighting for the United Kingdom, the most obvious example being in WWI.
The Unionist community certainly appreciated the gesture as Martin became the first Fianna Fáil Taoiseach to attend a Remembrance Sunday event. These are symbolic moments. Not only is it important that Irishmen who fought and died serving for the British Army in WWI be recognised but it also strengthens ties between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, especially within the unionist community.
I’m not here to debate whether it is right or wrong to wear a poppy, quite frankly I don’t care and it is none of my business what people choose to wear similarly as it is none of my business whether people choose to wear white socks with a suit. (do not do it lads)
It is actually because of the Shared Island Unit, established within the Irish government in October, I mention the poppy. Why the poppy, in all its variants is important is simple, respecting people’s right to wear one paves the way for further reconciliation. The poppy debate is only a proxy war between nationalists and unionists.
The wearing of the shamrock poppy is just a workaround for the contention around the issue of wearing a poppy for Irish politicians. It goes without saying, you do not have to agree with what the poppy stands, you do not have to wear a poppy, my argument is that you have to respect people’s choice to wear one.
Equally, people must also respect people’s choice not to wear one. You will only know when people respect the wearing of a poppy/not wearing one, when the debates about it no longer become yearly events.
It may seem inconceivable that certain groups will respect people’s choice to wear a poppy. These same groups do, after all, have to watch Irish flags being burned on top of massive bonfires on Twelfth of July each year, yet placing yourself on the higher moral ground, above the burning of one another’s symbols, that will be the side who wins the support of neutrals.
You could say “but they burn our symbols”, yeah they do, but that only polarises and divides nationalists from unionists which is exactly what loyalists and some unionists want. It serves unionist political interests that there is an evident divide between them and their neighbors. Put it this way, if you are a nationalist and seek Irish unity, why would you risk hindering the chance of unity by tearing into unionist symbols and culture every year? What message does that send to moderate unionists who seek peace and desperately want to build a bright future for Northern Ireland?
At the end of the day, these are the people you need to be convincing that Irish unity actually benefits them not least because Ireland’s EU membership is a far better alternative than a no-deal Brexit United Kingdom but also the idea of building a truly shared future, a shared island in which connections and trust between traditions on the island are at the forefront.
Reconciliation is highly difficult and takes a lot of time, but confronting history opens the path to reconciliation. What history will tell you is symbols mean everything to everyone, the poppy being no exception. That is why disregarding British symbols will only hinder Irish unity.
“Project 365 #299: 261009 A Legion Of Paper Flowers” by comedy_nose is marked with CC PDM 1.0
Peter is a digital marketer with a BA degree in history and politics. He is a member of Fine Gael. Twitter: Farrelly_peter