Judging by the adverse reaction on social media, I think it’s safe to say that yesterday’s perplexing decision by An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, to wear a small “shamrock poppy” lapel badge in Dáil Éireann has backfired spectacularly. The enamel pin, consisting of a green shamrock with a red poppy at its centre, is sold in Ireland by the Royal British Legion (RBL) to commemorate and raise funds for all those who served in the armed forces of the United Kingdom during the 20th and early 21st centuries. Though the organisation’s public emphasis is on the First and Second World Wars, in fact the conventional poppy badge symbolises all of Britain’s modern overseas’ conflicts. This includes the 1916 Easter Rising, the 1919-21 War of Independence and the so-called Troubles of 1966-2005. Naturally this make the RBL badges a deeply controversial – and for many, offensive – reminder of the UK’s colonial rule and interference in our island nation. Which, of course, the Fine Gael leader is fully aware of.
The belief by an Irish head of government that he should honour the deceased soldiers of a foreign power which sought to imprison or kill his ministerial predecessors in times past, has baffled many. Even more so when one considers that the RBL poppy commemorates the British ex-servicemen who filled the ranks of the Black and Tans and Auxies, the UK paramilitary police groupings which gained such infamy during the latter half of the 1916-23 Revolution. The mercenaries who burned Cork City or the town of Balbriggan are no less remembered by the poppy than the men of Irish extraction who died in Britain’s imperial service during the Great War. The honouring of the two classes of “fallen heroes” is inextricably linked and it is disingenuous to argue otherwise.
Interestingly, the shamrock-and-poppy design, which appeared around 2011, bears a marked resemblance to the shamrock-and-red-hand symbol used by several pro-British terrorist factions in the north-east of the country. These include the Young Citizen Volunteers (YCV), the youthful “street riot” wing of the revived Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), an organisation responsible for the murder of over 550 men, women and children during the course of the northern “Troubles”. The group is probably best known for the coordinated Dublin and Monaghan bombings of the 17th of May 1974, which left thirty-four people dead and 300 injured when three car bombs were detonated during the evening rush-hour in the capital; a fourth device exploded in Monaghan town ninety minutes later.
The sight of Leo Varadkar wearing a Royal British poppy, however contrived with an overlay of “Irishness”, has understandably puzzled or irritated a large chunk of the general public. However it is the sight of An Taoiseach wearing a badge whose design closely resembles that of a well-known symbol of British terrorism in Ireland, terrorism associated with the murders of hundreds of our fellow citizens, which should move us to outrage. Once again the Fine Gael TD has proven himself to be the very definition of intellectual and political shallowness.