November 7, 2019 - 7:00am

The Irish footballer James McClean has released what now seems to be his annual statement explaining why he won’t be wearing a special jersey displaying the poppy when his team takes to the field this Remembrance weekend. Cue the usual volley of criticism and abuse that is directed at anyone who exercises their right in the way that McClean has done. I find it distinctly unsettling.

Let me explain. I always wear a poppy. Not, admittedly, from the day of the launch of the annual poppy appeal – which, in the spirit of this age of commercialism, seems to take place earlier with each passing year – but certainly in the few days leading up to Remembrance Sunday. I don’t consider myself more virtuous than someone who doesn’t wear one. For those of us who do so, it is usually just a simple, understated act that allows us, for a short period, to open the door to that dead world of the past and commemorate the sacrifice of our forefathers.

For someone such as McClean, however, who grew up on the Creggan estate in Derry, the poppy symbolises something very different, and it is idle to argue otherwise. The mere mention of that city should be enough to make people appreciate why McClean would demur at any suggestion that he might display a symbol linked inextricably to British militarism. I doubt that any of us, had we, like McClean, been raised a Roman Catholic in that place, would see it differently.

McClean, to his credit, seems never to have engaged in any grandstanding about his decision, and has even said that if the poppy was designed to mark only the two world wars he would wear one. His refusal is not intended to provoke, but is rooted very simply in the experience of his family and community.

So we should lay off McClean, as we should anyone else who chooses not to wear a poppy, or to don a white poppy rather than a red one. There is, in these days of group-think, echo chambers and ‘safe spaces’, far too much demand for rigid conformity in thought, word and deed, so we should respect those who have the guts to stand apart on a genuine point of principle, particularly when they know their stance is certain to invite opprobrium.

Few things are, to me, more moving than the spectacle of a hushed group impeccably observing two minutes’ silence while gathered around a village war memorial decked with poppy wreaths. Long may such traditions continue. But it strikes me that the men immortalised on such memorials would themselves recoil at any suggestion that their descendants be bullied into making any sort of political gesture against their will.

After all, wasn’t it the other lot who insisted on such things?

Paul Embery is a firefighter, trade union activist, pro-Brexit campaigner and ‘Blue Labour’ thinker