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100 Years After They Died, Ireland Divided as War Heroes Honored by Their PM

© REUTERS / Clodagh KilcoyneLeo Varadkar arrives at the count centre as it is announced that he won the Fine Gael parliamentary elections to replace Prime Minister of Ireland (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny as leader of the party in Dublin, Ireland June 2, 2017.
Leo Varadkar arrives at the count centre as it is announced that he won the Fine Gael parliamentary elections to replace Prime Minister of Ireland (Taoiseach) Enda Kenny as leader of the party in Dublin, Ireland June 2, 2017. - Sputnik International
The Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has worn a shamrock poppy in the Irish Parliament. It may not seem like a big deal but, as Sputnik discovers, it is a landmark after years of slow rehabilitation for men who were originally considered by many in Ireland to be traitors.

The Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, Leo Varadkar, broke with tradition on Tuesday, November 7, by wearing a shamrock poppy in the Irish Parliament, the Dail Eireann.

It is a given that a British politician will wear a poppy and pay tribute to the country's dead in World War I but Varadkar's subtle nod of respect to Ireland's war dead.

Varadkar's predecessor Enda Kenny was the first Irish Prime Minister to take part in a Remembrance Day event, in 2012, but he declined to wear a traditional red poppy or the special shamrock poppy.

"The Shamrock Poppy recognizes Irish soldiers who fought in World War I. It was commissioned to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Great War by the Irish branch of the Royal British Region to remember the 206,000 Irishmen that fought, 26,500 of whom died in battle," said Varadkar's spokesperson.

What's the Problem?

So what was so toxic about recognizing the Irish soldiers who perished on the fields of Flanders, fighting against the Germans?

More than 200,000 Irish men and women served in the British forces between 1914 and 1918.

But in 1914 Ireland was a truculent part of the British Empire, which had been protesting for years in favor of Home Rule.

Three years into the war dozens of armed Irish nationalists launched the Easter Rising, when they took over the General Post Office in Dublin and exchanged fire with British troops. Almost 500 people were killed, the majority of them innocent civilians.

​When the war ended Ireland was finally granted Home Rule, but the north — Ulster — was retained by Britain, because the Protestant majority were loyal to the Crown and suspicious of the overwhelmingly Catholic South.

For many years the heroics of the Ulster Regiment were loudly trumpeted in Northern Ireland but their comrades-in-arms who came from what is now the Republic had an altogether different reception.

Irish journalist Cathy Grieve said the returning soldiers were treated suspiciously by many at the time.

"Some realized it was just a way of surviving poverty, a job to feed hungry mouths. Others fighting to free Ireland at the time thought of them as traitors," Ms. Grieve told Sputnik.

​The shamrock poppy Varadkar wore was supplied by the Irish branch of the Royal Legion and given to him by Senator Frank Feighan, from his own Fine Gael party.

Proceeds from the shamrock poppy go to Irish veterans and their families and towards the upkeep to memorials to the war dead in the Irish Republic.

'Deeply Controversial'

One Irish republican blogger pointed out the similarities between the shamrock poppy and the symbol of the Young Citizen Volunteers, the youth wing of the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force, who killed hundreds of innocent Catholic civilians during The Troubles.

He also pointed out the poppy technically commemorates those British soldiers who died during the occupation of Ireland, including the hated Black and Tans.

​"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," he added.

The anonymous blogger claimed Varadkar's decision to wear the shamrock poppy had "backfired spectacularly" but many of those commenting on it on social media were positive and an online poll by an Irish newspaper said he had done the right thing. 

​The Republic of Ireland was a neutral state during World War II, although German pilots who crashed were usually arrested while British pilots were discreetly escorted over the border and up to Belfast. 

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