Another year, then, brings another fuss about wearing poppies. This is perhaps unsurprising, when we consider modern professional footballs propensity towards being able to start a fight in an empty room when combined with the increasing hysteria that seems to manifest itself around this time every year. This time, in Premier League terms, the target of the tabloids has been James McClean, the Derry-born Sunderland winger who plays his international football for the Republic of Ireland, who opted not to wear a poppy on his shirt during Saturdays match at Goodison Park against Everton. The Mail on Sunday opted to describe McClean as “Controversial Sunderland winger James McClean” before stating that “Sunderland have distanced themselves from McClean’s decision.” The Sun, meanwhile, opted for a slightly different tack, describing his decision not to wear one as a “poppy snub” and highlighting the fact that “other players, including Everton rival Seamus Coleman, from Donegal” had worn a poppy on his shirt.
Interestingly enough, The Sun may even have even hit upon the crux of this particular storm in a teacup whilst trying to suggest the exact opposite. As a Derry-born footballer who has chosen to represent the Republic of Ireland, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to hazard a guess as to what McCleans reasons were behind his decision not to wear a poppy last weekend. As it should be in any democracy, it shouldn’t be obligatory for him to wear one, and furthermore he certainly shouldn’t have to face volleys of abuse from anyone over this matter or even have to justify his request to not wear one to anybody, least of all British tabloid newspapers or anybody else who couldn’t give two hoots for the rationale behind his reasoning for doing so because they come into the story with the viewpoint – and it is not a viewpoint that people who care a great deal about this sort of thing are likely to change in the foreseeable future – that anybody who chooses not to wear a poppy is in some way disrespecting the dead of two world wars and more.
Long-time readers will be fully aware that this is not the first time that we have been here. Two years ago, Gavin Saxton wrote about his disquiet with regard to the current culture of the remembrance in Scotland as viewed through the somewhat absurd prism of situation that played out after Airdrie United accidentally used a picture of German soldiers from the Second World War in a remembrance programme cover, whilst this time last year Dave Boyle addressed the matter after FIFA stepped into a debate over whether the England national team should wear poppies on their shirts for an international match being played at the time (which resulted in another compromise straight, apparently, from the scriptwriters of The Thick Of It, which resulted in players being allowed to wear armbands with poppies on them but not on the actual shirts themselves.
It has long been generally understood that remembrance should be an apolitical activity. This understanding, however, has come to be regarded by many as having been undermined by some on the right hand side of the political spectrum, whether we’re talking about the likes of the Mail and The Sun finding something to be offended by on the subject every year or the British National Party continuing to use the motif in direct defiance of the requests of the British Legion for them to not “politicise the Poppy pin in direct contravention of the Legion’s request.” As such, it is perfectly plausible to argue that the wearing (or non-wearing) of a poppy has, in recent years, increasingly come to feel like a political act, even if it was (or is) not intended to be one. It’s difficult to quantify this in anyway, but the idea that some people now steer clear of wearing poppies because of perceived associations with the likes of people such as those listed above seems plausible. It’s an irony that would probably be lost on them.
Still, at least this year the annual poppy kerfuffle might have a happy ending. McClean had already been contacted by St Patrick’s Athletic defender Ger O’Brien, a former Derry City team-mate of his, with regard to providing a short for an auction in aid of the Crumlin Children’s Hospital in Dublin. The prevalence of this story in the media over the course of the last couple of days or so is reported to have increased interest in the shirt by a considerable amount, and if a childrens hospital ends up better off as the result of all of this nonsense, then perhaps the rule of unintended consequences will actually have landed heads up for once. In the meantime, it is, perhaps, appropriate to leave the final words on this subject to Ger ‘Brien, whose charity seems set to benefit from the last few days of conjecture: “It’s own personal choice, whether people think he’s right or he’s wrong, people should respect his decision. He has his own reasons for doing it – probably he’s going to get plenty of criticism in the UK and he’ll get plenty of pats on the back in Ireland. That’s just the way the politics works in this world and the history of everything.”