There is no point in ever trying to understand Norn Iron without understanding two concepts. The Irish/Nationalists/Republicans and British/Unionists/Loyalists inhabit parallel universes. Arguably a third “lets get alongerist” community lives in a fantasy world of its own. The other concept which must be understood is that of the Zero Sum Game. That is to say that anything that is perceived as good for one community is necessarily bad for the other community.
Now I think it can be argued whether living in parallel universes and being “Seperate But Equal” is a good thing or a bad thing. Despite it being described as “benign apartheid“, it is something with which I am comfortable…and I write as someone who was an occasional member of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1970s.
The point is that I am content to live in a small “nationalist” village where I dont have to compromise my sense of Irishness. While nearly all that sense of Irishness is pretty passive, there are equally no outward displays of Britishness to impinge on my comfort zone (or if you prefer “delusion”) that I am living in Ireland. I have no real problem with the fact that in neighbouring villages, people are living a British way of life…in their comfort zone or delusion that they are in the “United Kingdom”.
So Far…So Good. “Lets Get Alongerism” (I am the first person to use this phrase but it seems to be catching on) is a doctrine which provides a (often risible) middle ground where we have a form of compromise. Too often this compromise involves inventing a shared history. And necessarily this undermines “Nationalism”. The key point about Nationalism……Italian, Swedish, Portuguese….is that it provides a list of totemic issues which make us unique as nations.
The Irish Dilemna in terms of a national identity is that Ireland is probably too close to Britain, a much bigger nation. Ireland is arguably too close to ever escape British influence. And yet too far from Britain to be truly integrated.
This means that we are sensitive to those things tha make us different. Of course it is true that in he First World War, large numbers of Irishmen served in the British Army. The War which broke out in 1914 put Home Rule for Ireland (Ireland being part of the United Kingdom) on hold…….and the British encouraged large numbers of unionists and nationalists to prove their loyalty by serving in the British Army. Rather foolishly unionist and Home Rule politicians trusted the British.
Now it might be logical to think that the British were being dishonest with both “sides”. It might be logical to say that they were being honest with one “side”. But the obvious observation is that they could not have been telling the truth to both sides.
Of course the 1916 Rising happened during the middle of WW1. The Proclamation acknowledged the help of “German allies” and the rebels were armed with German guns. Of course this was initially very unpopular even in “nationalist” Ireland. The Rebels were after all taking the side of the very people killing and maiming Irishmen in France. And rather typically the British mis-managed the situation. The execution of the Rebel leaders for example swung public opinion behind the Republicans and it led to the Anglo-Irish War and the formation of the Free State and later Republic of Ireland.
As a consequence of the necessary nation building (myth making?) the Irishmen who fought and died in France..and indeed those who returned to Dublin, Cork and Galway have been airbrushed from Irish History. There are some steps to re-dress this but I would argue that those men were in fact dupes. They had been lied to and used. And I would also argue that British Imperialism is not part of the ethos of the Irish Nation.
Yet there was as much or more myth-making in the narrative of “Ulster” History. In the summer of 1916, many Ulstermen were killed at the Battle of the Somme and that sacrifice is a part of the Ulster unionists self-image. Sacrificing all for King and Country and the reward of a “Northern Ireland” within the United Kingdom.
This sacrifice was not something the Ulster unionists were going to repeat in WW2. Norn Iron was the only part of the “United Kingdom” which did not have Conscription. Rather obviously men whose fathers and uncles had been killed at the Battle of the Somme were not over-anxious to do it all again. And just as obviously northern nationalists had no appetite to raly to British colours.
Unionists still cling to the myth of loyalty in WW2. They were in “reserved occupations”. They were guarding the border with neutral Irish Free State in case of German invasion or dealing with the “enemy within”. Or watching for bombs that never fell……….well actually about 1,000 people died in two German bombing raids on Belfast in April and May 1941. “Neutral” Ireland sent fire engines north. “Neutral” Ireland protested that an attack on “Northern Ireland” was an attack on Ireland……….and the Germans fearful that Ireland might enter the war on the Allied side (and Atlantic ports used by the Allies), never attacked “Ireland” again.
The Poppy is of course the symbol of Remembrance for Britains war dead. And in the zero sum situation, unionists adopt the symbol as “theirs” and nationalists for the most part ignore it all. Poppy Season is just an incovenient two weeks when British symbolism is more overt.