Many good friends and associates in Britain have asked why the red poppy which commemorates British military war dead generates hostility and opposition from some Irish people and Celtic supporters. With poppy-wearing season upon us we thought it timely to release an edited extract from Chapter 5 of our book The Blood Stained Poppy which we hope goes some way to explain why.
British governments have tried hard over the years to present the role of British soldiers in Ireland as that of peacekeepers, but that is not how most Irish people have seen it. They have viewed the British military as occupiers and oppressors. At best they have perceived the British army as part of the problem rather than as part of the solution.
As Irish commentator Fintan O’Toole put it, ‘the army had been a player not a referee’. Though no friend of Irish republicanism, O’Toole says the British troops in Northern Ireland made things worse: ‘the army did more to feed the flames than quench them’. In the eyes of British soldiers anyone opposed to British rule was an enemy. Soldiers arrived with a colonial mentality in the 1970s seeing Northern Ireland as another field for the operations it had run in Malaysia, Kenya, Aden and Cyprus, identifying Catholics as a suspect population.
Most people killed by soldiers were innocent civilians not armed combatants. In many instances military leaders attempted to cover up and deny such killings. Helped by a compliant British media, a common tactic was to lie and pin the blame on the IRA. It has taken years of exhaustive campaigning by families and communities to expose the full truth and scale of killings before military leaders and governments have accepted responsibility. In many instances they still refuse to own up to their actions. They continue to block families in their attempts to reveal the full circumstances of their loved ones’ murders at the hands of soldiers. In this context and with this history it should come as no surprise that the red poppy commemorating British soldiers evokes not admiration but contempt in parts of Ireland.
Sometimes military leaders are refreshingly honest when assessing the role of troops during the Troubles. General Sir Mike Jackson wrote that ‘it could be argued that the army did make the situation worse by, in practice, alienating the Catholic community… a desire to “sort the Micks out” was often apparent’.
Gus Hales, a soldier who saw tours of duty in North Belfast and South Armagh, explained how his fellow soldiers saw all Catholics and Nationalists as the enemy. He recalled how they harassed, intimidated and generally made life difficult for local nationalists.
Malachi O’Doherty, a Belfast journalist, described the kind of experience growing up in nationalist west Belfast that is too insignificant to make the history books, but which was a typical experience for thousands. The back door of his house was kicked in and he was dragged out into the garden by a soldier who threatened to shoot him. Fortunately, he was only kicked and beaten.
Not far from where O’Doherty lived Joan Connolly was one of ten victims killed in Ballymurphy, West Belfast, over several days in 1971 by the British Parachute Regiment. She was shot several times in the head and body. Eye witnesses claim soldiers refused emergency medical attention as she cried out for help. This mother of eight bled to death.
There were many good young men in the British army sent to the north of Ireland. The majority of them had no real understanding of what they were signing up for. They were mostly young lads from working class communities and straight out of school. Before they knew it they were in uniform, a rifle in hand and being jeered and resented by the very population their political masters had told them they were going to Ireland to help. Tragically, and too often, their initial naivety and optimism morphed into a desire ‘to sort the Micks out’. According to Nottingham University professor Edward Burke, recruits to British army regiments became ‘hyper-invested’ in its traditions and honour to the exclusion of democratic norms.
An example of this ‘regimental tribe’ mentality is illustrated by the double murder of two farm workers in Fermanagh – Michael Nann and Andrew Murray. Both were knifed to death by soldiers of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders in an operation whose purpose has remained obscure, not least because there was no investigation of the incident until seven years later when an army sergeant admitted to the murder. There was no evidence whatsoever to indicate either man was in the IRA but Nann had previously been involved in the civil rights movement and was a nationalist. This was enough to sign his death warrant. Soldiers approached the farm, the sergeant confronted Michael Nann in his byre and knifed him in the stomach. After Nann ‘died on me’ the sergeant reported, he went out and, with the help of his men, stabbed Michael Murray, who had been forced to lie on the ground, with the same knife.
Not just a few rotten apples
Were the four soldiers involved in these murders just ‘rotten apples’ in an otherwise healthy barrel? The evidence points to the contrary: They were socialised into this type of behaviour by their military superiors in accordance with the regimental ethos. For example, Sergeant Hathaway who led the murder gang had been an exemplary soldier, a stickler for the rules. It was not his personal character but the character of his ‘tribe’ that explains this atrocity. On top of the obsessional self-regard cultivated by most British army regiments, the Argyles had developed a self-image as ‘players’, hard men, who enjoyed ‘welting people over the head’. Many of these particular soldiers had been commanded by Colin ‘Mad Mitch’ Mitchell in Aden where they learned the habit of casual brutality.
British military collusion was directly responsible for the murder of hundreds of catholics
History records that Britain’s military presence anywhere in the world has brought with it atrocities and suffering for the local population. Ireland was no different whether it was at the time of the Irish War of Independence (1918-21) or the Troubles in the north (1969-2007) – the legacy was a bloody one. During the recent conflict military intelligence engaged in a practice, pioneered in other colonial conflicts, of getting local ‘players’ to do the killing for them. They either manipulated, directed or created loyalist murder gangs to do their dirty work. In the minority of cases IRA members would be targeted but for the most part it involved assassination of innocent Catholics. The ‘Glenanne gang’ was one such murder squad. They carried out around 120 killings. Catholic farmers, shopkeepers, publicans and businessmen were slaughtered in a bloody decade of bombings and shootings in the counties of Tyrone and Armagh.
For years local people claimed that scores of these such murders were carried out by loyalist paramilitary gangs, actively guided and helped by the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army, in particular the Ulster Defence Regiment. The evidence detailing over 100 of these murders has now been documented in gruesome detail. This was not just a case of a few bad apples or rogue British military involvement. The highest ranks in British military and intelligence were complicit and knew the extent of British security forces involvement.
British soldiers murdered nationalist men, women and children with impunity
The lived experience and price of British loyalist collusion means many in Ireland associate the red poppy not with honour and self-sacrifice of British soldiers but collusion in the murder of Catholics. Debates about the emblem continue to provoke anger and tension. In the hamlets, towns and counties of the north nationalist residents reject the poppy by reciting the lists of dead from their area murdered by British soldiers or their allies. In South Armagh they recount how on a bright summer’s day twelve-year old Majella O’Hare had just walked past an army checkpoint on the way to church when moments later she lay dying on a country road, shot in the back by a paratrooper. They continue to campaign for justice in relation to a number of other incidents of unarmed people shot and left to die on the roadside by British soldiers, like Fergal Caraher, shot down in cold blood by soldiers in front of witnesses as he drove home on a south Armagh road.
In the village of Aughnacloy, County Tyrone, 24-year old Aidan McAnespie was shot in the back while walking through a border checkpoint on his way to a Gaelic football match. British soldiers made clear their hostility and warned him on several occasions that they were going to ‘get him’, his brother Vincent recalled. They did get him on 21 February 1988. The anguish of the family was compounded by the fact that no soldier has ever been properly held to account for Aidan’s death. In recent years when instructed to observe a minute’s silence by football authorities on remembrance weekend a section of the Celtic support have refused to be silent and instead sing the ballad of Aidan McAnespie in tribute to the young Tyrone man whose life was ended by a British bullet.
Contrary to the British media narrative, British soldiers were never considered peace keepers by the nationalist population but rather oppressors. Any nationalist opposition to the British presence was ruthlessly dealt with by the state. The response was emergency laws, internment without trial, harassment, torture and intimidation.
British policy has been responsible for the deaths of children, women and unarmed youths by rubber, plastic and live bullets and widespread collusion between British security forces and loyalist paramilitary gangs targeting nationalists for summary execution. Punishment, beatings and degrading strip searches of male and female prisoners was the norm. Soldiers with the full knowledge of their government engaged in a litany of human rights abuses on a systematic basis. Awareness of such actions may help readers outside Ireland understand why the remembrance poppy is viewed in less than glowing terms in Ireland.
Many view the poppy not only as divisive but offensive in a north of Ireland context
To display the red poppy has been a signifier of British identity and support for the British Army presence in Ireland. This is why it is such a divisive symbol. Many Unionists wear it as a sign of their Britishness. Many nationalists reject the poppy because of its link to British militarism and identity. Irrespective of the peace process, to this day the poppy is irrevocably mired in the divisive politics of Northern Ireland and remains a polarising and contested symbol. Far from being neutral or benign it is political and partisan. That is why footballer James McClean has said he would not wear a poppy on his football jersey while playing for West Bromwich Albion – and likewise Wigan and Sunderland football teams. He has suffered media criticism, abuse on line and at football grounds across England for his stance. But the young footballer from Derry did not shy away from his refusal to wear the red poppy. In the West Brom match day programme he explained that he ‘would wear it every day of the year’ if it only represented those who died in World War One and World War Two. But, he correctly pointed out, the poppy commemorates the British military killed in all conflicts the UK had been involved in, including the north of Ireland. He could never under any circumstances have anything to do with it in that:
Because of the history where I come from in Derry. I cannot wear something that represents that.
In 1972, in Derry, 14 unarmed civilians were murdered in cold blood by the parachute regiment while taking part in a demonstration against internment without trial. In the years that followed British soldiers would go on to kill many more unarmed nationalist residents of Derry. It was the killings on what became known as Bloody Sunday, though, that left the deepest scar, and a burning hatred for the Parachute Regiment in particular. The nationalist community perception was not just that British soldiers murdered unarmed people but that they were able to do so with impunity. This is why James McClean, like other nationalists, rejects the poppy.
In a gerrymandered state dominated by a unionist hegemony from its creation in 1921, nationalists were continually reminded of their inferior position. Discrimination against Catholics in jobs, housing and the lack of political power was institutionalised – a situation successive British governments did everything to support. Remembrance Day events along with other activities on the Orange Order calendar were expressions of British identity. The poppy became part of the cultural paraphernalia of unionist domination. Unionist hegemony in effect meant that to not wear a poppy in certain workplaces meant not to have a job. The wearing of a poppy was obligatory in many work and public places. Right up to this day not wearing a poppy in certain places can mean being stopped and beaten.
The intolerance of the BBC and the poppy
The politics of suspicion and hostility surrounding the poppy have not disappeared since the peace process. Disputes about the emblem continue in the workplace and in other areas of life. It has also provoked unease within public broadcasting. Complaints emerged of undue pressure placed on TV presenters to wear the emblem. In 2015 a whistle-blower came forward to report that BBC Northern Ireland presenters had no choice but to wear the poppy on air and were effectively forced into the decision. A BBC insider revealed that, ‘if a decision by a studio-based presenter not to wear a poppy were to arise they’d be asked to take annual leave’.
While BBC bosses insist wearing the poppy on screen is a personal choice, when asked if presenters who refused to wear a poppy would be reassigned to off-screen duties, a BBC spokesman refused to deny it. Clara Reilly, the chair of ‘Relatives for Justice’ which represents relatives of those killed by British soldiers, insisted that journalists in the North should not be compelled to wear the symbol. Reilly, who was contacted by the whistle-blower, appealed to the BBC to ‘consider the views of the whole community, claiming the corporation was failing as a neutral and acceptable public broadcasting service’.
Mary Kate Quinn, whose uncle was John Laverty, one of 10 innocent Catholics killed by the Parachute regiment in Ballymurphy in west Belfast in August 1971, asked: ‘Will the BBC issue a clear statement saying that the wearing of a poppy does not commemorate the RUC, UDR and the British army as part of Operation Banner and the conflict in the north?’ The BBC declined to comment.
The symbolism is clear: the poppy commemorates British forces who fought in every conflict. That includes Operation Banner, the name for the deployment of British troops in the six counties.
Students at Queen’s University Belfast have protested over sales of British Legion poppies on the premises with one motion to the Students’ Union saying that: ‘the poppy appeal is a politically charged and necessarily divisive initiative, given the nature of local politics’.
In March 2018 Derry and Strabane Council voted to stop British armed forces from recruiting or advertising in schools. Independent councillor Gerry Donnelly put forward the motion calling on schools ‘to refuse British armed forces access to children/pupils as part of their attempt to glamourize/recruit for their imperialist ventures.’ Donnelly has long argued that people who support such bans on British soldiers from local schools and other venues see symbols like the poppy as stained with the blood of innocent people, and that the British troops were not peacekeepers but oppressors.
Most people who make a donation and pin on a poppy do so for honourable reasons. However, the record of the British Army in Ireland is far from honourable. Across the six counties dozens of campaigns and independent enquiries are under way bringing to light the full scale of army atrocities. Successive British governments tried hard to bury these deeds from public and media gaze but they have failed. These campaigns for justice and truth are largely made up of the relatives of those killed. For example the ‘Ballymurphy Massacre Campaign’ is fighting to highlight the murder over a three-day period of eleven unarmed civilians including a catholic priest by the parachute regiment. The killings occurred between 9 and 11 August 1971, in the Ballymurphy housing estate in west Belfast.
There were numerous other killings of unarmed civilians in the Ballymurphy area alone over the years. But like the many hundreds of other cases across the north, in almost every instance no soldier was ever held to account for these killings. A rare exception was the murder of Thomas ‘Kidso’ Reilly. Private Ian Thain shot ‘Kidso’ in the back and was convicted of murder in 1984. Two years later Thain was released on license and was back serving with his British army regiment.
22-year old ‘Kidso’ was home in Belfast for a short holiday. He had been a road manager with a number of 1980s pop groups in England. Thousands attended his funeral, including members of the female band Bananarama whom he had worked for. There were also flowers and cards from Paul Weller and the group Spandau Ballet who knew him. Speaking after the end of the conflict in 2007, when the British soldiers had left the north, Kidso’s brother Michael said:
‘When you’ve had experience of the British Army in the way my family have, you can honestly say nothing good ever came out of them being here… You’d like to think lessons have been learned but now we see the same thing happening all over again in Iraq, you wonder how many more innocent victims like my brother have been created there.’
Kidso Reilly was an avid Celtic supporter and travelled to Glasgow to see the team often. On the anniversary of his death family and friends displayed a banner in tribute to the young man at Celtic Park. Years later supporters would unfurl a huge anti-war banner in opposition to the poppy at Celtic stadium which read: ‘No blood-stained poppy on our Hoops’. A banner which provoked much controversy and debate including a witch hunt against those people who unfurled the anti-poppy statement.
For many Protestants and Unionists, the poppy is a symbol of respect for the war dead and also a potent symbol of their Britishness. By contrast, for many Catholics and Republicans it stands for empire, oppression and the British occupation.
Loyalist murder gangs hijacked the poppy
Protestants volunteered in large numbers to fight in the First World War and were largely gathered in the 36th Ulster Division. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916 the 36th suffered catastrophic losses when they went over the top. Many members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) formed a couple of years earlier to oppose Irish Home Rule had joined the 36th Division. Ever since, Unionists commemorate those men who lost their lives on the Somme.
However, with the onset of the Troubles in 1969-70 a new paramilitary loyalist group emerged, called the Ulster Volunteer Force. Ostensibly it was formed to fight to maintain the six counties as part of Britain and resist a united Ireland. In reality, it was made up of sectarian murder gangs who terrorised and murdered Catholics. It drove thousands of Catholics from their homes and jobs. It murdered many hundreds of people often with the active collusion of British military intelligence.
Today in some loyalist housing estates there are giant wall murals painted on the gable-end walls to commemorate the UVF who fought on the Somme but also to commemorate more recent UVF members who murdered Catholics. In some of these paintings, masked gunmen pose in emulation of the guard of honour that attends Armistice Day commemorations, adorned with red poppies. The message from these murals is clear. They draw a visceral connection between the UVF in the Somme and celebrate as heroes the UVF of more modern times who murdered Catholics. Such murals leave little room for ambiguity.
In this context the poppy is dripping red with the blood of innocent Catholics. The poppy may be cherished by many Unionists but such wall murals featuring the poppy and loyalist murder gangs only reinforce nationalist hostility to this image of remembrance. The elision of the commemoration of the British dead and loyalist murder gangs are not isolated incidents: they are common. In South Belfast less than a mile from the Ormeau Road betting shop where five Catholics were gunned down and killed in a notorious sectarian killing by a UDA murder squad, a plaque adorned with remembrance poppies commemorates these UDA killers alongside another plaque commemorating the British soldiers killed in the Great War.
In the lower Shankill area of Belfast a wall mural emerged in 2014 honouring a UDA gunman replete with poppy and First World War imagery headed with the words ‘Remember With Pride’. Here the poppy is invoked to remember both the slaughter on the Somme and those who slaughtered Catholics.
In Moygashel, near Dungannon in county Tyrone a commemorative banner was erected to Wesley Sommerville in 2014. He was a soldier in the British army Ulster Defence Regiment and also a UVF loyalist paramilitary. He was involved in the murder of Catholics and died alongside three members of the Miami Showband whom he set out to murder when his UVF bomb exploded prematurely. The tribute to Sommerville as a loyalist paramilitary and British soldier again illustrates why nationalists view British soldiers and loyalist collusion as systemic and why they find the poppy which commemorates such people so hard to stomach.
When families of nationalists killed by British soldiers called for those responsible to be held to the same standards of justice as other parties to the conflict and stand trial, British politicians and media screamed outrage. The Daily Telegraph, Times and Daily Mail published editorials expressing anger at the ‘unfair treatment’ of British soldiers under scrutiny by the Historical Investigations Unit (heir to the Police Service’s Historical Enquiries Unit). British Prime Ministers stood up in the House of Commons to complain that British army veterans were being ‘unfairly targeted for investigation’ in relation to legacy killings in Northern Ireland. This claim was repeated by Conservative and Labour politicians. However the claims were entirely incorrect.
Figures produced by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) reveal that it is not the British army but IRA killings that constitute the majority of cases being investigated. This has not stopped headlines in the British press like ‘Betrayal of our Soldiers Again’ and ‘Veterans hit out at “treachery” of ministers over IRA killings probe’. A series of high profile generals lined up to protest at the prospect of British soldiers being held to account for killing innocent nationalists Lord Dannatt, head of the Army between 2006 and 2009, expressed disgust at the prospect of prosecuting soldiers for killing Catholics. He told the Sunday Express: ‘War is hell. War is chaotic. And the IRA was at war with the UK.’
Colonel Richard Kemp who saw active duty in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan as well as Northern Ireland said he was, ‘so outraged I am returning the prized commission given to me by the Queen’. There is a good argument to be made for a general amnesty from prosecution for all actions committed as part of the conflict. There is a case, too, that it ought to be the commanding officers and the political leaders, not the ordinary soldiers who should carry the blame for what happened. But what the British generals, politicians and media are arguing for is an end to investigations into British army killings only. The message this sends out is one of double standards and that those killed by British soldiers are less important than other victims. Such presumptions only add to the hostility with which nationalists in the north of Ireland view British militarism and the poppy. In a free and democratic society people in Britain have every right to honour their war dead even if we contend that most wars the British military fought were more often about imperial ambition than democracy. Those who wish to wear a poppy in the north of Ireland have every right to do so as well and we defend their right to do so. But a little more sensitivity to the historically divisive nature of the symbol in Ireland would go a long way to healing what are for many the still raw wounds and hurt of the past. In the north of Ireland we need to move to a place where both Irish republicans and British unionists can commemorate their dead without unnecessarily antagonising the other.
Note: The aim of this piece is not in any way to guilt-trip or impune anyone who wears the poppy. It’s aim is to remind and explain to those unfamiliar with the history and politics of Anglo-Irish relations that the poppy for many is not neutral or benign but rather a symbol of British militarism and atrocity. Especially (but not only) to nationalists in the six counties.
The Blood-Stained Poppy – A critique of the politics of commemoration by Kevin Rooney and James Heartfield (John Hunt Publishing, 2019) is available from Amazon.