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05th Nov 2018

COMMENT: It doesn’t matter why James McClean refuses to wear a poppy

Republic of Ireland international James McClean has again been criticised for choosing not to adorn his shirt with a poppy this year.

Nooruddean Choudry

It’s that time of year again.

For the vast majority in this country, Remembrance Day is exactly that – a solemn anniversary upon which to remember a lost generation who were sent into battle for ‘King and Country’ and did not return. It is not for nothing that the Armistice itself is marked with collective silence. The sombre quietness allows for private acknowledgement and internalised reflection of the vast human sacrifice that was made in the name of war.

Sadly, for a vocal minority, that is not enough. Instead of dignified silence, there is loud and deliberate rage. The weeks leading up to November 11 are an excuse to publicly attack anyone who does not pay respects in the exact manner they deem acceptable. Indeed these Poppy Ultras actively seek out reasons to be angry, and do everything possible to ensure that their wrath gains maximum exposure – as if it is a measure of their #respect.

By now, you will no doubt have seen footage of very localised crowd trouble at Stoke City on Saturday. A handful of Middlesbrough fans took it upon themselves to yell insults at James McClean for not wearing a poppy. They did so whilst gesticulating wildly and flinging themselves at a line of stewards with just enough gusto not to actually break through to the player. It was a masterclass in performative hold-me-back bluster.

McClean is of course no stranger to ire at this time of year. He famously doesn’t wear a poppy for well-documented reasons to do with his heritage and political beliefs. As the Derry native explained in an open letter in 2014: ‘For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially – as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.’

Anyone who has read the letter in full can be in no doubt as to McClean’s motives and his careful consideration of the matter. He stresses that he has ‘complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars’ and that he ‘mourn[s] their deaths like every other decent person’. He goes on to explain in clear, articulate terms why he personally chooses not to wear a poppy, whilst clarifying that he is not ‘anti-British’ in his actions or views.

But here’s the thing: McClean’s reasons for not wearing a poppy do not matter. Or rather they should not matter to you.

As much as it is a credit to the Irish international for providing any sort of explanation, the fact that he should feel the need to do so is utterly ludicrous. It should be too obvious to state, but choosing not to do something is a passive inaction, not an aggressive act. The only exception would be if we were all forced to behave in a certain way and not doing would be insurrection. Thankfully that’s not the case, because wars were fought against fascism.

If you truly care about heartfelt remembrance, surely anything that forces people into taking part runs contrary to your aim. As soon as it becomes an actively opt-out, rather than voluntarily opt-in situation, each bowed head and pinned poppy is rendered meaningless. Zero choice means no autonomy to pay sincere respects. There is something inherently wrong about demanding conscripted remembrance for conscripted soldiers.

The vitriol towards McClean in particular is telling. He has gone to the trouble of explaining himself in great detail, but yet those raging at him from the touchline or via social media could not care less. He is seen as fair game for who he is. It is difficult not to conclude that anti-Irish sentiment plays a part – especially when some of the criticism is combined with references to ‘No surrender’ and the Pope.

There has been some media coverage of the fact that Nemanja Matic also chose not to wear a poppy this weekend, but he has received nothing like the same righteous indignation or blatant aggression aimed at McClean. On Monday, the Manchester United player opened up about the very personal reasons for not adorning his shirt with the emblem, and did so with upmost respect. It was not unlike McClean’s previous clarification.

So why the disparity in poppy fume? One explanation is that McClean is Irish Catholic, and certain sections of the Remembrance police don’t much like that combination. Another is that Matic is partly excused due to the fact that he is Serbian and therefore ‘foreign’. Any contention that McClean is just as foreign will be dismissed by the type of people who gleefully contradict how the Irishman refers to his own home city.

Nationality, religion, political beliefs and shoe size should be irrelevant of course. How you choose to mark something or show your respect is your business; how others observe it – if at all – is theirs. Venting your spleen about whether someone else is outwardly showing due deference is akin to shushing so loudly during a minute’s silence that you make the most noise. The exercise becomes less about remembering those who fought for your country and more about noticing you and how much supposedly you care. It is remembrance Top Trumps.

You may think James McClean is a twat. You may fundamentally disagree with some of his political viewpoints. That is your prerogative. How he feels about Remembrance Day, and how he chooses to express his internal feelings about it, are his. This time of year is not all about him – and it’s not all about you.