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6 November 1997 Edition

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The President, the poppy and petty politics

By Sean MacBradaigh

The poppy, symbol of the Royal British Legion, and sold in November to coincide with ceremonies organised by the same organisation to commemorate the dead of the British army in two world wars, was this week placed at the centre of a petty political row. It was placed there initially and mischievously by Eoghan Harris when he declared on RTE that if Mary McAleese wished to reach out to Unionists she should wear a poppy during her inauguration as President of Ireland on 11 November.

As the symbol of a British-based organisation which is closely linked to the British political and military establishment, the poppy is not, as some Irish commentators have suggested since Harris made his proposal, a neutral symbol which merely expresses sympathy and remembrance of those who died in the two World Wars.

In the Irish context the poppy is used as a symbol of division and oppression. In the Six Counties it is used in an overtly sectarian manner by the state, by loyalists and by the British army itself. Asked about the poppy Belfast priest Des Wilson pointed out this week that the only occasion he was approached to buy one was at gunpoint by a British soldier.

The ceremonies organised by the British Legion on 11 November are designed to coincide with the anniversary of the First World War on 11 November 1918 - an apalling imperial adventure which resulted in the needless waste of millions of lives. The British Legion and its supporters do not commemorate the Irish who died in the First and Second World Wars as Irish people but as British soldiers serving British interests.

Irish Republicans remember the Irish dead of the First World War as victims of British imperialism. To use their memory to further the interests of an outdated imperial ideology, or for sectarian, anti-nationalist purposes is to betray them in death as they were betrayed in life by pompous generals and ambitious politicians and rulers.

Eoghan Harris and his ilk are actively undermining the sacrifices of all those who are commemorated on poppy day by dragging their memory into a squalid argument fuelled by personal spite.

As head of state Mary McAleese was quite right not to allow herself and her office to be used in a cynical manner by people with their own narrow political agenda. She refused to be brow-beaten by Harris and the neo-unionist lobby in the 26 Counties during her election campaign and it is right that she was not browbeaten into donning a poppy on 11 November.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1
Ireland
 

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