Fewer people are wearing poppies in Belfast, as unionist symbols in the public space are successfully demonised by republicans

The remembrance period earlier this month produced yet more indicators that the cultural identity of unionism within Northern Ireland has changed dramatically in the last decade.

Thursday, 21st November 2019, 7:00 pm
A poppy worn on a jacket lapel to mark remembrance

The poppy is a symbol that unionists have traditionally held dear to their hearts, moreover, it is one of the few symbols that the Catholic / nationalist (but nor republican) community has a significant tolerance of.

I suggest that any diminution in the status of the poppy is an indicator that the republican agenda of denigrating the symbols of unionism from the public spaces has been successful and that the unionist political ability to defend the symbols of unionism is failing.

Depending upon your political outlook, you can either see the reduction of public displays of symbols of unionism as beneficial and as part of creating a long-term shared public space that everyone within Northern Ireland can take ownership of.

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Dr Edward Cooke

Or like me, you can see the removal of the symbols of unionism from the public arena as a phased process that is designed in the short term to bring about a change in the state.

It is my belief that the inability to fly the Union Jack in public buildings, the change in the symbols of the RUC to the PSNI, the removal of the Orange symbols from the streets and the demonisation of the poppy is part of Sinn Fein’s agenda to prepare the state for constitutional change.

Very soon the symbols of the Union will have disappeared from the public space, this ‘harmonisation’ will be also accompanied by a reduced resistance to constitutional change and apathy towards the introduction of new symbols of Irish (unified) identity on the streets of Northern Ireland.

On October 31, nine days before Remembrance Sunday, I sat in the centre of Liverpool and counted 300 people as they walked past. Admittedly the sample size of the study was small, but the results were striking. Approximately one in five of the Liverpudlians were wearing poppies. This is a city which apparently is proud of its wartime history.

On Sunday November 10, the number of people wearing poppies in Liverpool city centre was greater than those not wearing poppies. By contrast, on Friday November 8, I sat at Belfast’s Royal Avenue facing the City Hall and again counted as three hundred people passed by.

I deliberately chose the Belfast city centre for my quantitative study and not, for example the area around Queen’s University where the wearing of poppies are rejected by students and academics alike.

On all three days at lunch time in Liverpool and Belfast I counted poppies being worn by the public. All three days were cold, dry and sunny days.

In Belfast, two days before Remembrance Sunday, the number of people wearing poppies was approximately one in twenty. I cannot confirm the poppy sales figures per head of population within Liverpool and Belfast and I am uncertain if poppies are bought in the same numerical proportions, however, this random quantitative assessment does provide some evidence that people within Belfast are not as keen as Liverpudlians to publically display the poppy in the city centre of Belfast.

It might be that Belfast people still purchase poppies in the same numbers as Liverpudlians, but as to the actual wearing those poppies, on the basis of this random sample there are substantial numerical differences between Belfast and Liverpool.

Why ten days before Remembrance Sunday were there 62 people in Liverpool wearing poppies in the space of 15 minutes and only 15 people wearing poppies in Belfast’s city centre? If one argues that 50% of the (resident and visiting) Nationalist population of Belfast are not predisposed to wear the poppy, this still suggests (based upon the Liverpool figures) that two days before Remembrance Sunday, 30+ people in Belfast should have been wearing poppies.

If the poppy is no longer a symbol for public display, then what of all the other symbols of unionism? If symbols of unionism fade from the public spaces, what then of unionist political and cultural identity?

I suggest that when the DUP comes shortly to discuss issues of culture, Irish language, unionist identity and cultural parades, the DUP needs to be very careful in promoting Irish language at a time when Sinn Fein has successfully reduced the poppy to a symbol of intolerance.