A former British soldier has told the ‘Journal’ he believes the abuse meted out to Derry’s West Bromwich Albion winger, James McClean, over his refusal to wear a Poppy is the “worst case of Poppy fascism” he has witnessed.
Lee Lavis is a former member of the Staffordshire Regiment and served in Northern Ireland. Having joined the British Army in his late teens he openly admits that for many years he stuck rigidly to the British military analysis of the Northern Ireland conflict and is also candid about the fact he participated in the “daily harassment of the nationalist population” in the areas of the North in which he was stationed.
The former soldier is due to speak at an event in Derry this afternoon. The public event will take place at the Holywell Trust at 1.00 p.m. today and will see both Lee Lavis and an ex-UDR soldier from Coleraine, James Wilson, speak about their experiences in and outside the British services. Both men are now members of Veterans for Peace (VFP), a voluntary ex-services organisation which seeks to “educate young people on the true nature of military service and war and to convince people that war is not the answer to the problems of the 21st century.”
However, in advance of today’s event, Lee Lavis and 15 other ex-service members, from the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Airforce issued a signed statement to the ‘Derry Journal’ giving their view on the treatment of James McClean.
The Derry footballer has become embroiled in controversy over the last few years following his refusal to wear a poppy symbol on his football jersey during the annual period of remembrance.
In fact, last weekend he was also booed by Manchester United fans when playing at Old Trafford. McClean has asserted many times that as someone from Derry, where British Paratroopers shot dead 14 unarmed civilians on ‘Bloody Sunday,’ he refuses to wear a symbol which honours British forces.
The statement, sent to the ‘Journal’ said: “We, having dutifully served in our nation’s armed forces, are writing in response to the annual vilification of Derry born footballer James McClean, because of his decision not to wear a team shirt embroidered with a red Poppy.
“Furthermore, we would also like to collectively assert our understanding of his reasoning and support for the decision he has taken. Consequently, to those who have accused Mr. McClean of being a war monger, anti-British and a terrorist, issued death threats or set up a Facebook Page calling for him to be ‘booted out of English football’ we would ask the following question: Does this landscape of hate represent a fitting a tribute to those who have died in a war, or is it a case of ‘Poppy fascism’ at its worst?”
Lee Lavis has spoken at events in Derry in the past and has participated in panel discussions with ex-IRA men at the West Belfast Feile. He told the ‘Journal’ that when he left school the downturn in the traditional forms of employment in his native Burton-on-Trent, were being decimated.
“If you had no qualifications it was either go into the coal mines or the brewing industry. The mining industry had already been destroyed by Margaret Thatcher and most of the manual jobs in brewing were being automated by machines. So I joined the Staffordshire Regiment through economic necessity on my 18th birthday,” he said.
Serving in the North saw Lavis stationed in Fermanagh, Newry, Warrenpoint, Bessbrook and in Crossmaglen in South Armagh in 1994 in the countdown to the IRA ceasefire. Summarising his attitude to N. Ireland at the time he said: “When I came through training I was a zealot. I completely believed it was an issue that was black and white - they were the good guys and bad guys and I was one of the good guys. I thought that all members of the nationalist community were IRA members or if they weren’t, they were about to join the IRA. I even thought of the SDLP like that. I was involved in the daily harassment of the local population,” he admitted.
But after the ceasefire and the move towards some sort of normality, Lavis began to examine the history of Ireland and the conflict in the North and began to query the British explanation of it.
“I didn’t even know there was a Civil Rights Movement. I read more and more and began to realise there was another perspective, that we (the British Army) were part of the problem and not part of the solution,” he claimed.
Having quit the army in 1996, he moved to Belfast and took a First Class Honours Degree in History from the University of Ulster and is now in the process of completing his Ph. D.
A chance meeting with a former republican prisoner at a museum led to him speaking at a Sinn Fein Youth Conference in South Armagh in 2013.
Then two-and-half years ago he joined VFP and has since been involved in various projects aimed at reconciliation.
“VFP wear an alternative white Poppy and lay a white wreath at the Cenotaph in London each November,” added the ex-soldier.
Speaking about the entire growth of the annual red poppy campaign he said: “It’s now utterly political.
“It’s about support ‘the war, support the boys, don’t question the war.’ There’s no real explanation about why young people are dying, no aspect of remembrance any more which reflects the need to say this should not happen again.”
Lee Lavis believes this had led to an atmosphere of widespread jingoism that has resulted in the behaviour directed towards James McClean.
“I find McClean’s stance justified. He has been very clear about his position which means the abuse directed at him is one of the worst examples of Poppy facism I have ever witnessed. They have no understanding of the history of where James comes from. If they did they’d realise he is justified in his position.
Speaking about the change in the annual Poppy Appeal in recent years, the former soldier noted that it has transformed from a charitable collection in aid of service veterans into a corporate entity.
“It’s become a jingoistic, tub-thumping festival. For example, the annual Royal British Legion Ball is supported by Lockheed Martin, one of the world’s biggest arms manufacturers.
“It’s now a political and corporate symbol. It now excludes personal choice.
“I personally wear both a white and a red poppy.
“I want to claim the red Poppy back.”