Monday, 28 October 2013

Poppygate, and why students' unions should follow ULU's example.

Last year, Dan Cooper, vice-president of the University of London Union, declined to lay a wreath at ULU's remembrance Sunday service, and this quickly resulted in a Tory-led campaign to oust him from his post. Of course the whole episode became known as Poppygate. 

Unsurprisingly, the same thing has happened this year.

The Senate of ULU has passed a motion stating that "ULU's elected representatives have the liberty to choose" whether to go to this year's service in a personal capacity, but that they cannot go in their ULU capacity. Essentially, this means they can't go and claim to represent the 120,000 students who make up ULU, but that they are perfectly entitled to go on their own behalf. President of ULU, Michael Chessum, then made it clear that he wasn't planning to attend, and that choosing to attend or not is in itself a political statement. Cue Poppygate 2.0.

I'm going to talk about why I think it is a good thing ULU have adopted this position, and why I fully support my friends and activist colleagues in their decision- not least because Michael's already been subject to a load of abusive emails because he had the audacity to call out the farce that is the state's hijacking of remembrance day. 

I'm Irish. I live in Belfast and have lived here for my entire life. I'm not religious at all, but culturally I am a Catholic. Essentially, that means I tick 'member of the Roman Catholic community' on equality monitoring forms, because I come from a Catholic background. My mum comes from West Belfast, and my dad comes from Omagh. I was born in 1992, so I'm part of the generation who have grown up post-Troubles (or rather, post-what-people-say-is-the-end-of-the-Troubles-but-it's-actually-a-lot-more-complicated-than-that, but that is a topic for a different blog post), the Good Friday Agreement wasn't signed until I was 6 years old, but naturally I don't really remember much of the political world around me when I was that age.

I've gone to Catholic schools my entire life. And I love history- my entire family loves history. But I didn't get to learn about Irish history until I chose the subject for GCSE, and then learnt about it in further depth when I studied it for A Level. People can deny it all they want, but the reality is that British state played a massive role in exacerbating the conflict here, killed plenty of innocent people, and is still trying to worm its way out of taking much responsibility for the generations worth of devastation they've left behind. And for a lot of this, they used the military.

A few years ago, I worked in IKEA. And a lot of the security guards there (who I spent most of my days in relatively close contact with) were ex-military. I would talk for hours with them about Northern Ireland and the Troubles, and they helped make what was a menial and often frustrating accessibility-wise job a lot more interesting, and they were wonderful people.

But they didn't get to choose to do what they had to do. That was their job as soldiers.

The British state wrecked havoc in Northern Ireland throughout the Troubles, from internment to state collusion with loyalist paramilitaries; and to this day both they and many politicians in Northern Ireland refuse to own up to the part that the state played in the conflict here. Unfortunately, the army plays to the tune of the state. What the state wants, the army does. Just a few weeks ago, the current government was getting ready to send the military to Syria. The people fighting wars they don't understand and dying for causes they can't quite justify aren't those making the decision to send daughters, husbands, sons, parents, brothers, friends, colleagues to their death. They're ordinary people, doing the state's bidding.

Like it or not, poppies no longer represent what they initially were created for. Every year we have remembrance services where those in power in the state talk about our military and giving thanks to their courage, whilst handily forgetting that when current soldiers often come back from tours of Afghanistan, it's up to charities to mend what's been broken. The state absolves all responsibility, or at least most of it. Many charities end up picking up the pieces of soldiers who have come home and been abandoned by those who sent them out to fight in the first place. The army are there when the state and those in power want a good few photo ops, whenever they want to use these men and women as political footballs in their petty little game, but whenever it comes to providing affordable housing, a decent standard of education, accessible mental and physical health services, and leveling the playing field in terms of equality of opportunity for these people and their families, the state hangs them out to dry. Nationalism and patriotism can result in a dangerous ability to overlook the things, or lack of, that your state is providing for you in the name of service to your country.

I'm not a pacifist anymore, because I know holding that belief is a luxury afforded to those who have never had to fight for anything. But I also don't support the British state, and by extension, the British military. I don't support what they did in Northern Ireland in the last fifty years, and I don't support the war they've raged on Irish people and my ancestors for centuries. This blog post has barely scratched the surface. Of course I do not think those who choose to wear poppies are all British imperialists, held bent on oppressing Ireland- but I also think that these conversations are too important to ignore, and unfortunately in Northern Ireland, we keep pushing these conversations away. If we are to have a truly integrated shared future, it is time to ask the difficult questions and provide the difficult answers- how can the state expect ex-paramilitaries to do this when they won't lead by example? 

Unfortunately, this is probably too contentious a thing for many people who are in the public eye to come out and say, and I have the luxury of not being in that position. But if my own students' union can't come out and take a strong anti-war and anti-imperialist position, I'm glad a students' union across the water can. 

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