Is it possible to wear a poppy and an Easter lily? – Brian John Spencer ponders

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Living in a liberal democracy is about the free movement of ideas and of opinions. Their exchange is the mother of creativity, innovation, technological, political and cultural development.

Yet in Northern Ireland it’s a binary world where minds are guided by two ideas. You’re either green or orange. You’re either catholic or Protestant. To be Irish you have to be implacably not-British. To be British you have to be implacably not-Irish. Absolutism, non-compromise and clinically significant levels of intransigence are a virtue. There’s never a half-way house. It’s vice-versa politics.

This is a distorted political climate; a degeneration of a terrific order. It’s spectacularly stultifying on the people.

The poppy in Northern Ireland is a perfect indicator of the vice-versa politics. As is the Easter Lilly. By their cultural inheritance, unionists and loyalists wear a poppy and lay a wreath. By their birth, Nationalists and republicans don’t. The poppy is a matter of “them and us”. It’s contentious, antagonistic, divisive. Vice-versa the whole experiment for the Easter Lilly.

However these vice-versa traditions are quickly becoming the biggest obstacle to progress in Northern Ireland. As Mick Fealty said, “Absolute binaries are a settled condition of war.” To go forward we need a radical break from the vice-versa vitriol. The symbols can be shared. We need to forego the old binary biases and take up neighbourliness. We need representatives to take the lead. We can mark the other person’s cherished tradition with respect without having to be a fervent supporter.

Firstly, for the Catholic, nationalist and republican it doesn’t have to be a matter of vice-versa vitriol. The choice doesn’t have to be between hating England-and -rejected the poppy or  respecting the poppy-and-being a West-Brit. We need to recognise the cultural history and demographic realities of the island of Ireland. As Michael Kirke said, “The Irish constitute Britain’s biggest ethnic group and vice-versa” and so, as As Fintan O’Toole said, “A new [Irish] identity has to be positive rather than negative. But it also has to find a way to include Britishness.”

We don’t need poppy-wearing conscription, but we do need a de-politicisation, less vice-versa, less antagonism. We can look to the Republic of Ireland for the example. Sinn Fein would have you to believe what they represent what it is to be Irish – acutely allergic to everything British. This is a hideous distortion and untruth, and a hideous effect of the dysfunctional political climate in Northern Ireland.

Sinn Fein style anti-Britishness is not what it is to be Irish. Look to the Republic of Ireland and you will see progressive republican leadership who are very happy and very ready to work with their British neighbours. Taoiseach Enda Kenny laid a wreath in Enniskillen. Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore laid a wreath in Belfast. The President Michael D Higgins led a large Remembrance Day ceremony in Dublin. RTE broadcast a Remembrance service. These are the actions of a modern, non-“ourselves-alone”, courageous and transformative Ireland.


Armistice Day Service at the Cenotaph in the grounds of the City Hall in Belfast. Belfast’s Sinn Fein Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir (second from left) along with the DUP’s Deputy Lord Mayor Christopher Stalford (third from left) make their way through the Garden of Remembrance to the Cenotaph for the short service.


Sinn Fein lord mayor Máirtin Ó Muilleoir paid his respects at the Armistice Day ceremony in Belfast. A historic moment and a massive step forward. However the party of “ourselves alone” and the republican grassroots remain reflexively anti-British. With Sinn Fein being the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland this is generating a false narrative, and ironically is deepening partition, for the anti-British political climate among republicanism in Northern Ireland is at growing variance with the Republic of Ireland.

The Sinn Fein view of British history as a narrative of genocide, ridicule and repression, whilst understandable, is a hopelessly reactionary position. Like the anti-Columbus movement in America, it cherishes past grievances over future opportunities. Atrocities should be remembered by republicans but they must not be allowed to become the driver and motivator of a political movement.

Secondly, for the unionist who demands respect for the poppy and the remembrance ceremony, it is incumbent upon him or her to reciprocate the generosity when it comes to mainstream Irish commemorations. (The Shankill bomber memorial is an isolated example and outlier that was roundly condemned by people and commentators in the Republic.)

As John McCallister said, we need to open a hand of forbearance and conciliation. Not a resentful, morose, offshore Serbian hand that wants to police the thoughts of those who dare commemorate an event they don’t associate with. As John McCallister said, “As a British citizen, as someone who believes in Northern Ireland’s place in the contemporary United Kingdom I would not describe myself as ‘celebrating’ the Easter Rising. I think it is important, however, that I commemorate it alongside Nationalists, that I recognize the fact that it shaped 20th century Irish history and – in different ways – all our political convictions.”

It cuts both ways – both unionist and nationalist need to forego the old sectarian slogans and need adopt grace and generosity. As John said, “I do think we all have to commemorate these events as helping to define 20th century Ireland and who we are today.” This needs to be the third way that recognises the Irishness and Britishness that exists on the island. We need a reformation in thinking. For this to happen requires action and bravery of political giants who are willing to reach out of their comfort zone and who can set the example for men and women on the streets to follow. As Baron Creeth said, “How our politicians treat each other up in the Assembly and on television directly impacts those in interface areas.”

Conor Cruise O’Brien knew even in the 1990s (here) that the solution to conflict was never in the sectarian binary choice between unionism or nationalism, but that the answer lay beyond the old mental categories of the Troubles. Just as Fintan O’Toole said that Irish cultural nationalism has created “a prison” for the Irish people which has crippled their true identity, so British cultural nationalism in Northern Ireland has created a prison for the Northern Irish unionist. To be British, does not mean you can’t be Irish – and vice-versa.  To be British does not mean you can’t respect the history and traditions of the Irish – and vice-versa.

By continuing to go down the binary path we are ruining, retarding and stultifying our children. So many young people within Northern Ireland have emancipated themselves from the cold mental categories of the Troubles. Yet they are forever beholden to the mood of a vocal minority. If politicians bicker on sectarian lines, civil society will do the same.  If politicians reconciliate along open, shared lines, civil society will come to do the same.

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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.


  1. This piece is more about having a go a Sinn Fein and it’s supporters for allegedly being anti-British but provides no evidence for it. While there are many reasons why things are currently in the state they are, a glaring omission is unionisms lack of or bad leadership recently. Republicans are not anti-British however certain things such as the overtly militaristic commemorations of the past few days are hardly welcoming for them. Republicans have many issues with British values and history and of the current Tory led government but to say they are anti-British is just wrong. Martin mcGuinness wasn’t so anti-British when he met the queen of England not that long ago nor when SF voted to turn the city hall red for Poppy Day etc.

  2. Once again Brian John Spencer has provided us with another talented and thought provoking article. People will take sides and dissect his words (part of his talent to provoke debate) but both he and Mick Fealty are right – the simple binary interpretation is really ‘TOO SIMPLE’. The simple way of looking at things has not served us well. We are a complex people with complex problems. Brian (and Mick before him) have set out terms for the debate – let it begin in a mature fashion. For my part I take the Ghandi approach in that there is plenty of room for both of us on the pavement. Interpretations of the past are not mutually exclusive – indeed there is much truth in all opinions involving our history and its symbols. What I do find confusing is the lengths that people will go to write some things out of history. Our children today have a chance to be told the complete account of our country going back hundreds of years – a luxury that was denied to me. King William was married to a Catholic yet if a present day Orangeman marries a Catholic he has committed the ultimate betrayal. William’s body guards were entirely Catholic, he had the blessing of the Pope who ordered the bells to be rung upon his victory – I was never told any of this at school. I was taught the TOO SIMPLE version of us and them. Huge numbers of Irish men went to fight in the two world wars on the side of the British – that was played down and they were forgotten until recently – but I was never taught that. The youngest British soldier killed in the 1st world war was from Ireland (John Condon aged 14) – but I was not taught that either. And do not start me on the Irish language which was saved from extinction by the Church of Ireland and that Sam McGuire was a Protestant, The United Irishmen in Ulster were mostly Protestant, Seaman James Magennis, a Falls Road Catholic, won the VC during the second world war but the Stormont government of the day ignored his achievement ………. We are a complex people and whether we like it or not our past intertwines in ways that does not suit the old binary interpretations. Brian John Spencer has opened a debate and if we wish to take part then we need to tell the whole story and not selectively choose bits that suit partisan interpretations

  3. When I saw Mayor Mairtin attending the Armistice Day event, I wondered at his reasons and motives, but then when I saw that he was also in the company of Fr Des Wilson I was reassured.

  4. Brian omits the most glaring issue in relation to both political symbols – their contrasting treatment by those with the power to influence our prevailing moral and intellectual culture.

    We are subject to a hegemonic discourse on the poppy by an ‘impartial’ and ‘independent’ broadcasting media and pervasive popular culture. The poppy is relentlessly peddled as a non-contentious and non-political symbol of good triumphing over evil, and by extension, a symbol that no decent person could object to.

    The problem with this narrative is the existence of another story, the millions of people -throughout time and place – who have been on the other end of the imperial leash. Such inconvenient misery and death is consigned to the memory hole, aided by a tradition that typically does not look at ‘our’ crimes; and a media and academic herd that internalises the sacred principle of British state benevolence.

    If wearing a poppy represents an endorsement of British military foreign policy – then we are supporting recent blood-drenched ventures such as the ‘supreme international crime’ in Iraq and the centuries of conquest that preceded it. As Dr Richard Drayton remarks, we must be mindful that the ‘good war’ against Hitler, has been used as an ‘ethical blank cheque’ to underwrite 70 years of war-making – unprovoked state violence that has almost nothing to do with the lofty rhetoric that accompanies it.

    ‘Liberals’ like Brian, rather than promote some superficial and mushy coming-together of the two communities, would be better served setting the historical record straight and thus helping to ensure no more working-class men (and women) from places like East Belfast kill and die for the interests of the corporate elite in Washington and London.

    As for the Easter lily – in accord with the aforementioned internalised principle – it is rejected as absurd that there can be any ‘equivalence’ between our noble violence and the terrorism of the savages that have sought to destroy us.

    • people should read “catholic ex-servicemen don’t count” on to see how Loyalists treated them. The Lord mayor’s gesture is incredible considering the unionist attitude and behaviour

  5. I see no reason opposing the possibility, you certainly don’t have to invoke Cromwell’s (statistical) Law to highlight how easy it would be for someone to wear two badges.

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