Should footballers have to wear the poppy?

As Remembrance Day approaches, the annual debate around James McClean refusing to don the poppy resurfaces. Saturday’s game between Stoke and Middlesbrough saw fans of both teams react angrily to the Irishman’s decision.

There was abusive language from a corner of the Bet365 Arena, and stewards were forced to restrain angry fans as McClean walked to the tunnel after full-time.

McClean’s decision comes directly from his affiliation with Derry. He grew up on Creggan estate, where British soldiers killed six residents during a peaceful protest in the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972.

The poppy commemorates military personnel who have died in all conflicts, not just those of the First and Second World War. That’s why McClean has refused to wear the poppy since 2011.

I spoke to Brig Ian Townsend, former director general of the British Legion.

“It’s an issue of freedom, I don’t think there’s a need to dictate anything. If people want to wear a poppy, that’s fantastic. If they don’t we have to respect their view,” he said.

“The poppy is the poppy and people should be free to wear it if they wish to, and if they don’t wish to that’s their choice.”

In light of McClean, Townsend said: “In the First World War, there were huge numbers of soldiers who came from the Irish Republic, and indeed in the Second World War. People shouldn’t forget that the United Kingdom in the First World War was united.

“Plenty of his [McClean’s] fellow countrymen fought in the First and Second World Wars, and what happened in the Troubles was a different issue.”

Although Derry is in Northern Ireland, the residents consider themselves part of the Republic of Ireland. Its main football team Derry FC play in the League of Ireland Premier Division, the only Northern Irish team to compete in this league. Derry FC were granted access by the Irish Football Association due to the Troubles.

I also spoke to Neil McCarthy, a former journalist who wrote about the Troubles.

“In the Republic of Ireland, the poppy is almost unheard of,” said McCarthy.

“If he [McClean] had come from the south of Ireland, then he wouldn’t have the memories of recent atrocities.”

When I asked whether McCarthy felt McClean’s reasons were valid in not wearing the poppy, he said:

“Part of me feels sympathetic for him. He comes from an area where six of the victims of the Bloody Sunday massacre came from. If the poppy was solely about the soldiers of World War Two and World War One then he would wear it every day.

“If he wore the poppy, he’d see that as commemorating the British military personnel who as far as he is concerned took up arms against his own people in the early 1970s.

“It would be an insult to the soldiers if we then forced people to wear the poppy. The poppy was for freedom. I agree with a compromise in respect of the Irish soldiers.”

The consensus is there should be a compromise in order for people to be free in their political opinion and show their respect simultaneously. The current Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, was seen supporting a special commemorative poppy in the Dáil on Thursday.

The poppy was designed by the Royal British Legion, in order to “promote greater public awareness of the legitimacy of the Remembrance Poppy within an Irish context”, according to the organisation’s website.

The shamrock-poppy hybrid aims to incorporate respect for the fallen soldiers, without compromising the views on other incidents that contradict the original purpose of the poppy. Instead of the current abstention that is causing the commotion, could this be the answer for James McClean?

By Marcus Otty

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