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First World War centenary: Why Ireland remains divided over the poppy

3:53 am, 8th November 2018

It’s something that would be unthinkable in the UK just before Remembrance Sunday, and can seem incongruous when you consider that more than 200,000 Irishmen fought in the First World War alone.

To understand why, historical context is key.

Dr Brian Hanley, historian at the University of Edinburgh, explained that much of Ireland’s struggle for independence was tied up with a rejection of the Great War.

Nationalists felt betrayed that, despite hundreds of thousands of Irishmen serving in the war, independence from Britain was not being granted.

“I think many people see a difference between celebration and commemoration”, he said. “The poppy seems to be not simply a commemoration of the dead of the First World War, but a celebration of British military efforts throughout the twentieth century.”

Not everyone agrees.

Brian Duffy is the chairman of the Royal British Legion’s Republic of Ireland branch. His grandfather fought in the Somme, and he himself served in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

As we spoke in the Legion’s office on Molesworth Street, just a stone’s throw from the Dail – the Irish parliament – a steady stream of people pop in to pick up their poppies.

“I’ve seen three on the street already this week in Dublin”, he said. That this is noteworthy in a city of a million people showed how rare the poppy remained here.

But Mr Duffy is adamant that attitudes are changing. “People may still look”, he said. “But they don’t pass comment.”

He’s keen to stress that all funds raised by the Legion’s Irish branch stays in the country, and is used to help Irish ex-servicemen and women – a fact often overlooked by critics of the symbol.

Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said she would not wear a poppy, but insisted if anyone in her party chose to do so, it would be up to the individual.

The party’s candidate in the recent president election, Liadh Ni Riada, was heavily criticised after saying she would wear a poppy if elected. Ms McDonald said Irish republicans choose not to wear it, but it is a matter of personal choice.

Ireland’s relationship with the poppy has been brought to the fore again by the case of footballer James McClean.

He plays for Stoke City, but hails from Derry, the scene of 1972’s Bloody Sunday killings. He refuses to wear a jersey emblazoned with the poppy, and last weekend received abuse from the crowd in a match against Middlesbrough.

He’s also been targeted with sectarian slurs on social media, and received a warning from the Football Association after retorting with foul language.

Ms McDonald said the abuse McClean received was “disgraceful”, and that people should understand that many Irish people have “experienced the British army as an aggressor”.

Where Sinn Fein and the Royal British Legion agree is this: they say that no one should feel obliged to wear any symbol, nor should anyone be targeted for their decision.

From “poppy-snatching”, which saw the flowers ripped from lapels in the Dublin of the 1920s and 1930s, to an intimidatory “Poppy Watch Patrol” Facebook group that emerged last week, the wearing of the Flanders poppy has always been divisive in Ireland.

The choice to don one may be gradually becoming more acceptable, but there’s little doubt that it is also a statement that will attract attention on Irish streets.