One morning last week I met my friend Trevor Ringland over breakfast. Before getting down to business we reflected on the recent rugby world cup, as you do. I watched the final in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower in a scrum of thousands of England fans and pronounced myself delighted with the result. I joked that while I have dealt with sectarianism in many areas of my life, my Irish attitude to all English sporting endeavour is non-negotiable. Anyone but England.
Trevor, who has played international rugby for Ireland cannot understand my attitude. He says, if you think England are arrogant, you haven’t played against the Aussies. If you think the Aussies are arrogant you haven’t played against the All Blacks. If you think the Blacks are arrogant you haven’t played the Springboks. South Africa, he says are the most arrogant of rugby nations and a true rugby fan in this part of the world would always support the northern hemisphere teams against the southern. And I do. Except when its England.
‘One Small Step, Glenn’ he said, referring to his role as chair of the One Small Step Campaign, encouraging Northern Ireland citizens to make some small gesture towards peace by taking a step
towards the other. But for me, supporting England is a ‘giant leap for mankind’ to coin a phrase.
Anyway, I thought of Trevor this morning, Remembrance Sunday. This morning I wore a poppy for the first time ever. I’ve tried on several other occasions. Getting close several times. But this morning I took that small step.
In Northern Ireland the poppy is a political symbol, like just about everything else. Historically, the protestant community, who are Unionist by political identity have worn them, but the Catholic community, broadly Nationalist by political identity haven’t. I’m Irish and Protestant so a little confused, and I could never wear a poppy.
But things are changing here. A few years ago Mary McAleese, Irish president, joined the Queen at the opening of a memorial remembering the Irish dead in the first world war. Only in recent years have we been able to acknowledge the role of many tens of thousands of Irish boys who died in the horror of the trenches.
I’m still uncomfortable with the militarism of the ceremony, and the attempt through ritual to glorify the sacrifice of war. And whilst I stood while ‘God Save the Queen’ was sung in church I certainly didn’t join in. (But then that’s not so much a sectarian thing. I wouldn’t sing Amhran na bhFiann in church either. It’s just wrong). But I stood with the tiny red poppy, which seemed a weight out of all proportion to its size.
Next year perhaps I’ll wear the white poppy.