GRAEME COUSINS talks to Norman Espie – a member of the Royal British Legion for almost 40 years, and its national standard bearer for the past six years
It takes a certain amount of dedication to be chosen to bear the standard for the Royal British Legion at its flagship remembrance service in London.
But to be picked for the honour for six consecutive years takes a level of commitment that is off the scale.
That has been the case for Northern Ireland man Norman Espie, who after six years as national standard bearer for Great Britain at the Festival of Remembrance, and another as deputy standard bearer, has decided to pursue a new goal with the Royal British Legion’s hierarchy.
Norman, a member of Cookstown Royal British Legion who joined at the age of 18, said: “To be chosen you have to enter a competition. You have to win your region first – that’s Northern Ireland – then you go on to compete against 10 other regional winners throughout Great Britain.
“It’s all based on drill movements and how you’re dressed.
“You’re inspected on every movement and you’re scrutinised from head to toe on the cleanliness of your attire.
“It really takes over your life as my wife would tell you.
“You have to be cleaning all the time to keep on top of it.
“At the end of the day to be number one you have to be gleaming.”
The 56-year-old said his time with the security forces set him in good stead for the requirements of a standard bearer: “I was in the UDR and RUC so I was used to the drills.
“The competition is really tough. You’re usually up against guardsmen, all ex-Army, so you’re up against it.
“It’s done annually. I’ve managed to win it six years in a row.
“At the last service I was the only standard bearer from Northern Ireland in London, along with Ellie Parke, who was National Youth Standard Bearer.”
Norman was accompanied at the service in the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday, November 10 by his wife Linda, to whom he has been married for 34 years, his daughter Laura and her husband Sam.
Looking back over six years as Royal British Legion National Standard Bearer, Norman said that it has been a tremendous privilege and honour to take part in many Royal British Legion ceremonial events in many places around the world.
The event was a particularly important and historic occasion for Norman because it was his last time ever to take part in this prestigious event which is attended each year by the Queen and members of the Royal Family.
Speaking of his last ever time to take part in the Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in London, Norman said he felt particularly honoured to take part in this important historic event which marked the centenary of the Armistice.
He said: “It’s such a great event, but there was a bit of sadness this year because it was the last year and I know I’m going to miss it so much.”
Norman added: “We’ve started a training school for standard bearers in Cookstown.
“We’ve actually had five national standard bearers out of Cookstown – one from the women’s section, three national youth standard bearers, and then myself.”
Such is the reputation of the Cookstown branch for producing standard bearers that other regions have sought out their expertise.
“We’ve reached out from Cookstown and there’s other branches coming to us – from Dungannon, Aghadowey,” said Norman.
But for the Cookstown man, he has gone as far as he can go as a standard bearer.
He now aims to pass on his expertise and also train for a new role overseeing standard bearers.
He said: “I’ve decided to step down and do judging. I’m going to go for National Parade Marshall, basically over all the standard bearers.
“I’m doing my judge’s course in March, I’ve already done my parade marshall’s course (for which he received a Grade A).
“You have to get your Grade A on the judge course as well as the parade marshall course before you can apply for National Parade Marshall – the role only comes up every three years. ”
Throughout the course of his duties Norman has met some high-profile dignitaries: “Honestly, I’ve nearly met all the Royals.
“I actually had a conversation with Prince Harry.
“If you can believe it or not, he recognised my accent as being from Northern Ireland.
“He joked to me, saying, ‘you need to make sure and put the standard back into its sleeve when you go back into Northern Ireland’.”
Explaining what inspired him to join the Royal British Legion in Cookstown, Norman said: “When I was serving all the boys were socialising there. That’s where it started.
“Then I got more and more involved with it, a help out with the Poppy Appeal and other events.
“I’ve met so many friends down through the years, it’s a big family now.”
Norman has been a member of the legion since he was 18. In two years’ time he will celebrate 40 years’ membership though it was only in 2007 that he started his training to be a standard bearer.
That same year he won the Northern Ireland Standard Bearer competition and went on to win the National Standard Bearer competition.
During the last six years as National Standard Bearer, Norman has performed ceremonial duties as far afield as India, Italy, France, Belgium and Egypt.
His duties also involved taking part in several pilgrimages in which he took family members of war veterans to see the battle fields where their ancestors fought during World War One; other tours also included the World War Two D-Day Landing.
In August, Norman had the privilege of heading up some 1,100 standard bearers who took part in the Great Pilgrimage (GP90) at Menin Gate, Ypres.
A plumber by trade, Norman left his profession to join the RUC, but returned to plumbing in 1990.
Norman will retire as Royal British Legion National Standard Bearer in May 2019.