By Jim Gibney
The decision by the new leader of the SDLP, Alasdair McDonnell, not to wear a poppy on Remembrance Sunday will be welcomed by the vast majority of northern nationalists.
While many people will question his wisdom attending the Remembrance Day event at Belfast City Hall,with its paraphernalia of British and unionist military regalia, nonetheless his decision not to wear a poppy is significant.
And while I understand the view from the British Legion when it claims that the poppy is not a political symbol and that there is no element of coercion for people to wear it, the fact is that in the north wearing the poppy is political and coercion is used.
The people responsible for making the poppy a partisan political symbol are the unionist parties.
They use it as they use the flying of the Union flag as symbols to define their status inside the United Kingdom.
Both emblems are used in the north in a divisive way to exclude rather than include.
In this instance the poppy is used to exclude those from a nationalist background whose relatives lost their lives in the First World War.
It is also used by unionists to glorify the memory of the RUC/UDR and prison service members killed during the conflict while ignoring the hurt and pain these forces inflicted on the nationalist people.
The official status afforded the poppy is also offensive particularly to nationalists.
The north is a divided society. Allegiances to emblems by its people reflect this division. That is why the PSNI has an emblem which carries a harp and crown representing the allegiance of those who serve in its ranks.
It is also the reason why the north’s assembly has a neutral emblem - the motif of the linen or flax plant, so long associated with the linen industry.
The outburst this week by First Minister Peter Robinson about the future emblem and name of the prison service shows the extent to which unionists cling to emblems that belong to a political society in the north that no longer exists.
For Mr Robinson the badge on the cap of a prison officer’s head is more important than the crisis in people’s lives due to the economic recession.
The poppy is the soft face of British militarism and its overseas wars. It is used to justify conflicts involving the British government in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In northern society wearing and selling the poppy should be a matter of individual choice.
Even The Guardian in Britain, in an editorial last week, called for ‘voluntary poppies’ and asked: “Is it right that aggressive media policing has made the wearing of a remembrance poppy virtually mandatory?” It should not be worn by people paid for by the taxpayer such as the PSNI when they are on duty.
It should not be worn by journalists at the BBC when they are on duty or people invited on to the BBC as a guest.
It should not be sold in buildings employing members of the civil service.
It is an issue of equality between the people of the north. It should not have preferential treatment.
As leader of the SOLP Dr McDonnell has made a good start.
But he must carry his policy of equality throughout his party and an area where he should focus in on is in Lisburn council where SDLP councillors sided with the DUP to block an equality motion that had the backing of the Ulster Unionist Party, Alliance and Sinn Féin.
At last month’s full council meeting two SDLP councillors abstained on the crucial vote and in doing so handed a victory to the DUP which blocked the motion.
Had the SDLP councillors, one of whom is Lisburn mayor Brian Heading, backed the other parties supporting the motion then for the first time in the council’s history nationalists would have been treated as first-class citizens of the borough.
Pursuing equality is not an optional extra in a society like the north where inequality was a way of life and which fuelled the conflict for generations. Nationalist have to see equality delivered in all aspects of their lives, practical and symbolic.