Monday, 15 November 2010

Margaret Ritchie and the Poppy

Much has been made of the SDLP Leader Margaret Ritchie’s decision to wear a poppy at a commemoration to British Soldiers yesterday. Three out of four of my great grandfathers fought in the First World War, two of them were injured, all of them went in order to feed their families. This aspect of our family history was never hidden, it was never denied but it was never lauded either; mostly due to the fact that the various grandfathers themselves knew well the dirty, futile war they were forced to take part in given the economic conditions in Ireland at that time and the false promises made by the British Government. I have no intention of wearing a poppy. My father’s paternal Grandfather Jack wore a poppy every year, eventually he made the decision himself that he could no longer wear it given the evident political and sectarian abuse of that emblem during the recent phase of conflict here in Ireland. My mother’s paternal Grandfather was a radio operator during WW1 – his son, my Grandfather, went on to become a Volunteer in the IRA. So many of us throughout the Island have a family history similar to this; mostly due to the fact that Britain colonised our country. Its important to note that my mother’s paternal Grandmother was from a long line of Republicans; she hid bonds to pay for a speaking tour by O’Donnavan Rossa by sowing them under the carpet in what would eventually become my mothers family home in 35 Short Strand. I don’t deny the fact that I have great grandparents who fought in WW1, if I am honest I don’t laud it either. I acknowledge that these men, working class, fathers, husbands, were discriminated out of work in the vast industrial sectors that surrounded their homes in east Belfast and went to fight for the British Army, the reasons for this are multi faceted. Many others have a different analysis of this and given the fact that I live and represent people in east Belfast I know well that for them they have a different perspective. I think they appreciate a more honest approach this issue more so than tokenistic photo-ops. During the Second World War my maternal Grandparents had begun the process of throwing off the shackles of hunger, false promises and lies force fed to Irish people in order to try and trick them into fighting another war on Britain’s behalf. Like many they took part in the Struggle for Irish Freedom. My Grandfather Jim was interned in various jails for his republican activities and his wife to be, Mary, was already an active member of Cumann na mBan. During his tenure as Mayor of Belfast I with other Belfast republican activists joined Tom Hartley in laying a laurel wreath at the City Hall. For me this was difficult at a personal level but in a political sense I was prepared to acknowledge and more importantly remember the real reasons why so many men had to go to war. The story of the British Army is not one of glory. That is why I am genuinely intrigued as to why the SDLP Leader Margaret Ritchie thought it would benefit her to take part in a British Army Remembrance Service and to wear the poppy which has become so divisive here over a long number of years. As a symbol it is now even being resisted in England given the pressure people feel under to wear one. I can understand and appreciate the loss felt by families of British soldiers at a personal level and they have every right to remember their loved ones, that is understandable. However I am genuinely intrigued to know what Margaret Ritchie will think, on a human level, the next time she bumps into the Ballymurphy or Bloody Sunday Families on her travels? What if she had of met one yesterday with her poppy in her lapel? What would she have said? For my part I am prepared to discuss this aspect of Irish History with all sectors, I think it is an aspect that needs continued discussion in order to break through the revisionist propaganda. However I have no desire to celebrate the British Army’s roles in countless military escapades across the world, I have no desire to financially contribute to them through the purchasing of a poppy. I am conscious always of those people murdered by the British Army here in Ireland over countless generations, I have no desire to create the false impression that there was ever anything good or beneficial about the role of the British Army here in Ireland, there was not and there is not. Sadly for their families the British Government are still more than willing to send countless men and women to death in unwinnable wars many miles away. So that is why in a very serious way I think Margaret Ritchie has made a blunder. In her PR driven desire to appear ‘progressive’ she will no doubt have isolated those countless people, many in her own constituency, who were harassed, beaten, intimidated and imprisoned by the British Army, each one of them victims. I think most people, from both communities here will see this for what it is. I await to see how Margaret will remember those men and women who fought and died in pursuit of Irish Freedom come next Easter.


  1. I think you've raised a very important point. For me its more of a dilema, My grandfather and great uncle fought in the British Army and my Grandfathers brother was in turn, killed In Italy. I think I would probably wear a poppy out of sympathy for those who gave there lives in war, no matter who they where or what they believed. I dont think any members of the British Army would have wanted to go to war if they knew what they where getting into. On a humanistic level I would wear the poppy, but I wouldn't want to see this as a symbol of support for the british army, of which I have none, you've raised an intresting point about the British Army today aswell, It seems sad that we can sympathize about the World Wars whilst sending young people across the world to die for a war just as pointless.

  2. Niall, your post was excellent and very well put chara.

    Fair play to you for the way in which you approached the whole issue with sensitivity.

    Keep up the good work and of course the blogging......

  3. The British were not necessarily the goodies in WW1. In WW2 they certainly were, but WW1 is more vague. At that time the British Army was a very ruthless and frankly downright evil organisation. What other nation would send it's citizens "over the top". If the poppy represented only the people who got slaughtered I would wear it. But it represents the British army and my conscience would prohibit my from wearing it.