Nationalist leader Ritchie wears poppy in symbolic gesture

A leading Irish nationalist today became the first leader of her party to wear the poppy on Remembrance Sunday.

A leading Irish nationalist today became the first leader of her party to wear the poppy on Remembrance Sunday.

SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie attended a ceremony in south Down to mark the sacrifice of millions of war dead.

The poppy has been a controversial symbol in the North, often dividing unionists from nationalists who resent the British Army's role in Irish history.

Ms Ritchie, South Down MP, said her party believed in reconciliation on the island of Ireland and wanted to acknowledge Irish nationalists who fought in two world wars and had been airbrushed out of history.

"We have to reach out and I was doing that by reaching out to those who lost loved ones in both wars," she said.

"I simply see this as an act of remembrance, an act of respect, moving on and reaching out."

The poppy is sold by the British Legion in the run-up to Remembrance Sunday in November to raise money for veterans. Pat Catney, the chairman of Lisburn SDLP, said society in the North has to break away from claiming exclusive rights over symbols such as the poppy.

As he laid a wreath during a ceremony in Moira, the former GAA player said he was proud to have maintained a personal family tradition stretching back more than half a century.

Mr Catney's uncle, Laurence Catney, was serving in the Merchant Navy when his ship was sunk off the coast of Tenerife in 1942.

"I first attended the Moira ceremony as a little boy with my father. He was remembering his brother who was lost at sea at just 18 years of age," said Mr Catney.

"There were 30,000 Merchant Navy seafarers who also gave their lives. Like my uncle they died a terrible death.

"I make no apologies for carrying on a family tradition and praying, as I have always done on Remembrance Sunday, for all who have lost their lives as a result of conflict on the world stage."

Mr Catney said there should be no exclusion zones surrounding the symbolism of issues as diverse as the Irish language, the GAA or the poppy.

"There has been far too much hypocrisy and naked political opportunism over what the bigots want to control as their own cultural badges," he added.

"We should all be left to make our own judgment calls on those matters.

"If we allow a certain section of the community to grab control by excluding others from participating, we will never break down the barriers of division."

Sinn Féin Northern Ireland Assembly member Alex Maskey broke ground in 2002 when, as his party's first Belfast Lord Mayor, he laid a wreath to remember those who fell at the Battle of the Somme.

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