Captain's Blog: No Controversy In Principled McClean Stance

Alex Livesey

James McClean is rarely one to stay out of the papers for long. But following his decision not to wear a poppy on his shirt at Everton, the question people need to be asking themselves is not 'what has he done?', but 'why has he done it?'

On the morning of 31 July 1972, British soldiers entered the Creggan Heights area of Derry. It was part of a wider operation to invade the 'no-go' areas which were controlled by Irish Republican paramilitaries.

Whilst there, a soldier from a Company of the 1st Batallion of Royal Scots opened fire on a small group of unarmed teenage civilian residents, killing 15-year-old Daniel Hegarty and seriously wounding his 16-year old cousin Christopher, before leaving the boys on the ground and vacating the area without offering either medical examination or assistance.

A 'hopelessly inadequate and dreadful' military inquiry was held a year later which returned an open verdict and a Ministry of Defence document described Daniel as 'a terrorist'.

Just six months earlier, 14 men - including 7 teenagers - had also died in Derry at the hands of British soldiers following a civil rights march on what has come to be known as Bloody Sunday. That total included 6 men, again, from Creggan - the place that James McClean calls home.

Since McClean took to the field against Everton as the only Premier League player who did not have a poppy on his shirt, there has been a lot said about his decision. Our own head editor, Simon Walsh, offered a staunch defence of the player's right to choose whether he wore a poppy or not. Others, such as Sky Sports' Graeme Bailey insisted that the poppy appeal is such a treasured facet of the British identity that all players plying their trade here should be forced to embrace it.

It is a reasonable debate, but while people get carried away with freely indulging their outrage at his decision, few seem willing to consider why McClean made the decision in the first place. Instead, ignorance, assumption, and conjecture have reigned.

Personally, I consider myself fortunate to be born British. I am patriotic by nature and genuinely proud of our military history and the legacy it has left the world. A direct relative of mine died on the Hindenburg line in the First World War and I can't pass the South Hylton war memorial that carries his name without feeling that sense of pride. My granda, whom I never knew, fought in the second world war, and hearing about his various wartime adventures in battles such as Arnham were treasured times.

But what if I grew up in Creggan? What if the memorials I walked past every day were to commemorate innocent teenage lives savagely taken by the British Army? What if the tales I grew up hearing were of homes so devastated by loss at the hands of our military that mothers continued setting a place at the dinner table for massacred children even months after their deaths? What if the pub my parents went to in order to celebrate my international call-up were filled with broken and scarred families, still carrying the pain of The Troubles? What would my regard for the British Armed Forces be then? Not a very high one, I am sure.

I won't say that I have even the first idea of how being raised in such a community effects those who are born into it. It is not something I could possibly know. By the same token, however, I won't be so ignorant to deny the likelihood that it had some kind of effect somewhere along the line.

There is this idea out there that history is a matter of fact. A simple list of events in black and white for all to see and accept. The truth is that history is, and always has been, a matter of perception. Ask one of the millions of women raped at the hands of the Red Army as they advanced on Berlin through Eastern Europe in the closing stages of the Second World War, and it is unlikely you'll hear the word 'liberators', for example. The lines become blurred. There is no definitive and universal interpretation.

From our perspective, McClean choose not to wear a symbol closely associated with our war heroes and noble dead. But from his perspective he chose not to wear a symbol closely associated with an organization who - for all its brave servicemen and women of the past - marched into his community, opened fire on children, committed atrocities, branded the innocent dead 'terrorists', and left a deep scarr. When something that savage has touched you on a personal level, whatever other good they might have done at some point or another must surely fade into the background.

I have heard many arguments as to why I should be outraged at McClean's decision not to wear a poppy, each revolving around a purely subjective interpretation that the player is having thrust upon him and then judged against.

I am told that you can not respect those who have served in the armed forces or their sacrifice without wearing a poppy, but I haven't worn a poppy at all this year yet know I have respect for their cause.

I am told that simply not wearing a poppy is an act of disrespect and implies hatred, but find that a staggering quantum leap wholly without justification. Are those of us who are not growing a moustache this month expressing hate for those suffering with prostate cancer? Of course not.

I am told that the whole thing was nothing more than an attempt at attention-seeking, yet I have seen no public statements issued at all by McClean on the subject.

I am told that given the time that has passed McClean should leave the past in the past, and not allow the wrongs committed against his forefathers effect his judgement in the present. I wonder how many of those making such a claim still harbour hatred for the Conservative Party due to Thatcher's decimation of the industries that previous generations were built upon in Sunderland?

I am told that since he is playing his football in a city with our own proud military traditions that a failure to wear a poppy is a failure to show adequate respect for the heritage of the fans, yet if we have the right to be proud of our own heritage and embrace it as part of our identity and ideals, doesn't James McClean retain the same right to do the same with his own?

Whichever way you want to look at it, we cannot be outraged that our own ideals, principles, and heritage are not being honoured whilst simultaneously refusing to accept those that belong to others. We simply do not have that right.

We are not talking about someone here who burned poppies or staged a demonstration during a Remembrance Day service. It isn't as if he has gone out of his way to abuse his profile to make inflammatory political statements that incite hatred and division. He didn't even refuse to observe the minutes silence at Goodison Park. He paid his respects just like everyone else in attendance did.

All he is guilty of is making a quiet and dignified stand of nonconformity in accordance with his own upbringing and principles and, to be perfectly honest, the roots of those principles are considerably easier to understand than they are to vilify. It is simply a case of checking the history books and accepting that just because we don't share those principles it does not necessarily make them any less valid.

And what is the alternative, anyway? Condemn someone based upon their heritage and their refusal to conform to the ideals and beliefs of the majority? Perhaps advocate banishing the heathen to a far flung extremity of the territories? That's been done before. Personally, I consider it an immeasurably worse way to sully the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for our freedom than simply exercising your right to not wear a poppy.

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