There is no sense in forcing a hijacked, sullied symbol onto others

Posted By: November 09, 2017

Allison Morreis. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, November 9, 2017

You would think at this late stage in the game I’d know better but despite the undoubted backlash I’m going to write about the annual poppy furore anyway, mainly because regardless of how many times it’s said respect means choice there are those who still seek to impose the symbol upon others.

In Northern Ireland, with our history of conflict, unsolved state killings, collusion, and atrocities, there has always been controversy around the wearing of the poppy.

It is not helped by the insistence of ill-informed loyalists to claim ownership of the symbol and lay it on memorials to men who didn’t wear a uniform but a balaclava.

John Lovett, a 72-year-old war veteran who survived the Second World War, was shot in the back 25 years ago this month as he stood in a north Belfast bookmakers. The gunman was said to be Steve ‘Top Gun’ McKeag, a lunatic of a man responsible for numerous sectarian murders.

There is no mural remembering John Lovett’s sacrifice. There is one honoring the now dead McKeag and it has poppies all over it. There’s your poppy controversy summed up in a nutshell.

The first Poppy Appeal was held in 1921, the founding year of The Royal British Legion. Red silk poppies, inspired by the famous First World War poem In Flanders Fields, sold out instantly and raised more than £106,000, a hefty sum for those times.

The funds helped First World War veterans find employment and housing after the war. It was a worthy appeal given the traumatic and disorientated state of those who returned from that bloody and savage conflict.

The inspiration for the poem came from the early days of the Second Battle of Ypres. The story goes that a young Canadian artillery officer, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, was killed on May 2, 1915. The brigade doctor, John McCrae, was asked to conduct the burial service because the chaplain had been called away somewhere else and later that evening, after the burial, he began the draft for his now iconic poem.

Five days after the death of Lieutenant Helmer, my great-grandfather Tommy Morris was also cut down in the second battle of Ypres.

From Bruce in Co Cavan, Tommy had moved to Belfast with his wife Rose seeking work. They settled in the lower Falls, close to where is now the Divis area.

I’ve no idea what made Tommy, a father-of-five, join the Royal Irish Rifles, whether it was out of loyalty to king and country in a pre-partitioned but increasingly turbulent Ireland, or if he just needed the money to feed his wife and children.

Either way, this little countryman from Cavan lasted 56 days from a rifle was placed in his hand until he was dead.

His name is on the Ploegsteert Memorial

in Belgium.

I have the letter that was sent to my great granny Rose informing her of his death. According to the census, the now-widowed mother couldn’t read or write so I wonder who read it out to her. A friend? A priest? My grandfather, also called Tommy?

Whatever happened, the younger Tommy also joined the British army, in a now very different Ireland. He escaped the poverty of his youth and traveled the world as a young soldier before settling down into married life.

As a member of the Territorial Army, he was conscripted at the start of the Second World War and sent to Malaya where he was captured by the Japanese and the rest of his war was spent in a prisoner of war camp.

He was freed in 1945 and returned to Belfast. Despite his experiences, all who knew him said he was a gentle and quietly spoken man.

I often think of both of those men with whom I share a bloodline. What I don’t do is wear a poppy.

My cousin Thomas ‘Kidso’ Reilly was shot in the back by a member of the British army. Ian Thain was the first soldier to be found guilty of murder while on duty in Northern Ireland. He was quickly spirited back into the army. I tried to contact him a few years ago to no avail. I wonder, does he feel regret or remorse for killing the grandson and great-grandson of those two fellow soldiers?

It matters not whether he does, for it changes nothing. I also don’t particularly care that the UDA feel it appropriate to remember the cowardly killer of an unarmed war veteran with the poppy.

The idiocy of that act is theirs and theirs alone to justify.

I do care that there are those who seek to force that symbol, hijacked and sullied as it is, onto others.

The history of the three Tommys in my family alone is reason enough to abandon that practice.