Yesterday, I saw a clear example of the old adage which I have just invented, which is two wrongs usually make a very wrong. The Irish footballer James McClean, who plays for Stoke City, refused to wear a poppy on his shirt, something he has always done since he moved to England in 2011. As usual, he was subject to appalling abuse, in this instance by a number of Middlesbrough supporters.
The Royal British Legion takes a common sense point of view as to whether people should wear the poppy. People fought and died for our freedoms, but our freedoms include the right not to wear a poppy if we don’t want to. McClean went much further than merely not wearing a poppy.
In explaining his decision, he quoted the IRA terrorist Bobby Sands, who back in 1981 died in a hunger strike. The words were: “They have nothing in their whole imperial arsenal that can break the spirit of one Irishman who doesn’t want to be broken.” McClean added,”To the section of uneducated cavemen in the left-hand corner of the Boothen End stand that want to song their anti-Irish song each game and call me a Fenian this and that… I am a PROUD FENIAN no cunt will ever change that, so sing away.”
I feel very strongly that the Poppy Police should not force anyone to wear a poppy. I bought mine and promptly lost it with 24 hours. Other friends choose not to wear them at all. Certainly no sports club should compel their players to wear a poppy and it is a fact that Stoke City did no such thing.
Those who abused McClean will have had their different reasons. Some will be Poppy Police, some will use it simply as a means by which they wish to unsettle an opponent, some will be far right fascists who stand for the very things our armed forces fought against in World War Two. McClean didn’t help himself.
Eventually, though, I come down on the side of McClean. I support the Royal British Legion, I support Remembrance, I buy a poppy every year. I also believe in freedom of expression. McClean has to be allowed the freedom to quote Bobby Sands if we wants to, just like he should be allowed to not wear a poppy. I supported the freedom of expression that allowed Salman Rushdie to publish The Satanic Verses in the face of Islamic fascists who wanted to have him killed. I supported the Danish cartoonists who took the piss out of Allah. I loved Spitting Image and I love Private Eye. And on and on.
Freedom of expression means having the right to offend people and be offended. McClean can quote an IRA terrorist, I can condemn IRA terrorists, as I have always done. Our democracy at home and abroad is at risk from the dark forces of the far right. Sometimes freedom can be awkward to defend, but defend it we must. Banning McClean from saying and doing stuff we might find offensive diminishes our free country. And we know what happens when you start banning free speech.