This weekend across the island of Ireland there will be commemorations of those Irishmen who died in the service of the British Crown in many conflicts.
Most of those remembered died in the “Great war”, but Irishmen continue to serve in the British armed forces and they continue to die for Britain.
In the Republic people have developed a sophisticated analysis and are able to differentiate between the individual heroism of our own and the cause for which they were led to their death.
I am writing these words in my father’s town of Westport County Mayo. I have yet to see anyone wearing a Poppy, but if I did I suspect it wouldn’t be such a big deal. Earlier this year Westport came to a halt for a British military funeral. One of our own, Robbie McKibbon died fighting for Britain in Afghanistan. Uniformed Brits carried his coffin through Westport. Every shop and business closed as a mark of respect. It was respect to the lad and his family not the military force that had slaughtered Irish people in this county 90 years ago. A British military funeral in Westport would have been impossible in the time of my grandmother. She told me as a boy in the 1970s that one of the happiest days of her life was when she heard the news that the Carrowkennedy ambush had been successful. A few miles out the Leenane road our lads, including her young husband and two brothers, had given the ‘Tans what they deserved. Nine of these British mercenaries lay dead by the roadside. Incredibly two surrendered and the West Mayo Flying Column of the IRA gave them quarter and safe passage. It was mercy they scarcely deserved. The generation of people who remember Black and Tans on the streets of Westport are now dead and gone and their children are in their 80s.
So some in Ireland have been able to move on somewhat regarding this issue.
However, it would be inaccurate to characterise this society as utterly transformed on the issue.
Although to many here the wearing of the Royal British Legion’s Poppy is a symbol of the “West Brit” it is hardly a hanging offence in the modern Republic of Ireland.
In the North commemorating Britain’s Irish war dead long ago became a sectarian wedge issue.
Despite this there have been moves towards reconciliation.
In recent years Sinn Fein representatives have attended wreath-laying ceremonies in Belfast and wore the Poppy as an act of outreach. However for many in the nationalist half (and it is half now) of the Six counties’ population the Poppy remains as foreign to them as an orange sash.
The first of these Sinn Fein representatives to do so was Tom Hartley. The senior republican has done much to research the experience of nationalist Belfast marching away in 1914 to die for the British Empire. Of course many of those Irishmen believed John Redmond that they were going to died “for the rights of small nations” and Irish Home Rule. His work has been thoughtful and human. Not for a second does he have any affection of Greater England’s imperial designs, but he has time to see the tragedy of Irishmen dying for their enemy. I agree with him. For too long the memory of those Irishmen who misguidedly died for England was airbrushed out of the Irish collective memory. Even the British military experiences of Irish revolutionaries like James Connolly and Tom Barry were rarely mentioned. Yet it was these life experiences that made them effective in the field of battle against the British. This was especially true of Barry in West Cork.
It is from this perspective that I view the recent engagement in Scotland’s “Old Firm” culture war.
Last years’ “minutes applause” highlighted the problematic issue Remembrance Day is for Celtic with such a large Irish following in their support.
To the average British person it is simply a commemoration of poor British sqauddies in the trenches of the Western Front or the RAF pilots who defeated the Luftwaffe in 1940.
Imagine then someone from Derry visiting Celtic Park and being asked to observe a minute’s silence for members of the Parachute regiment-shooters at Bloody Sunday-who may have stepped on an IRA booby trap in South Armagh some years later.
I have no idea if, say, the murderer in Glenfada Park met such a fate, but it is possible.
Imagine that scenario and you have an idea why the minute’s silence for Britain’s war dead isn’t universally viewed as appropriate within Celtic’s support.
“Poppygate” came at a good time for those with Rangers PR as part of their day job.
The over-identification with squaddies and Poppies at Ibrox these days’ smacks of a post-Famine song PR counter attack.
Were I running their PR I would probably have done the same. The man who handles Ranger’s PR account at Media House is a friend of a friend. He is a solid PR professional. Ex-tabloid editor in Scotland. An Aberdonian with no “Old Firm” axe to grind. Moreover, he doesn’t even like soccer!
He certainly has had a serious job of work to do handling the RFC account. His main problem wasn’t Irish politicians or the few journalists not in David Murray’s pocket, but the Rangers support itself.
The recently added veneration of the wartime RAF to the Ranger’s song sheet is all the more strange when you consider the rich vein of neo-fascism that runs through the hardcore Ibrox support. Any mind that considers it consistent to give Nazi salutes in Israel and then sing back home about the RAF shooting down German bombers is in need of professional help.
Add to that the virulent anti-Irish racism at the heart of the Ibrox belief system and the stream of bad stories to keep out of the media must have seemed never ending.
A counter attack was needed.
This time last year the Ibrox club had been subjected to several months of adverse publicity due to the Famine song. There had been consular involvement and several questions had been asked of Foreign Minister Micheál Martin by opposition TDs about the Famine Song controversy in Scotland. At the start of November 2008 Eoin Ryan MEP (Dublin) had visited Scotland for the day as the guest of the Scottish executive. Ryan had raised the issue on the floor of the European parliament.
The Scottish government were keen to present a squeaky clean image to the visiting MEP.
I was the only print journalist to cover the event. The Scottish political class were highly embarrassed at the attention form Irish politicians.
It pushed all the wrong buttons.
For a start Ryan stepped off the plane with a belief that Glasgow had a large Irish community.
He is, of course, entirely correct.
He called the Famine song “racist” the Scots spoke of “sectarianism”
At that meeting in the Glasgow City Chambers one of the primary working documents was the October statement from RFC issued by the club and signed by Martin Bain.
It was clear that those who follow Rangers were the problem and that was the reason that the Irish MEP was there.
Ranger’s reputation was under assault.
They had to fight back and they did.
At the end of the Month had saw Ryan’s visit and the first conviction of a Rangers fan for singing the Famine Song at a Scottish soccer stadium we had “Poppy gate”
Perhaps recalling the senseless slaughter of the Somme will, momentarily, distract the Ibrox support from the fact that their club is on the financial equivalent of a ventilator.
The Poppy issue gives them a British stick to beat Celtic with. Their Fenian rivals being “unpatriotic” and disrespectful to the war dead etc.
In the end this is just about PR.
That, of course, devalues the entire commemoration of those who went to war and didn’t come back.
Perhaps the PR people who work for RFC could come up with something more appropriate for the bankrupt club than hijacking the Royal British Legion’s sombre and respectful symbol of remembrance.
Rangers need their own special event.
Pauper Day for the club with no poppy.