Taoiseach Varadkar explains why he wears the Irish-British shamrock poppy

Leo Varadkar and a Shamrock poppy

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has had his fair share of difficulties with the British government over the last few months as the Brexit negotiations meander on with the Northern Ireland border being the main sticking point.

At times he’s let his frustration with the British establishment show, describing how they seem to think Ireland should fall into line with the UK and leave the European Union as well.

But on one issue at least, Varadkar seems to be united with his counterparts across the sea: honouring those who fought and died in the First World War. More than 200,000 Irish servicemen fought on the British side; 35,000 were killed in action. Most of those troops went to war believing that it would lead to Home Rule for Ireland when they returned.

Leo Varadkar and a Shamrock poppy

In the meantime, the Easter Rising took place in 1916, changing Ireland forever. Suddenly, the Irish troops who were waved off as heroes, were now seen as fighting for the other side. The attitude of their fellow citizens towards them was indifferent, even hostile.

Ireland did not celebrate their sacrifice and achievements in the same way as other countries like Britain and the United States.

In an interview with joe.ie, Mr Varadkar was asked about the shamrock poppy he was wearing. He explained it was made by the British Legion in Ireland and that it applied to anyone who died fighting for Britain.

“It’s a modified version to allow us to remember Irish people who died fighting for the United Kingdom, which, of course, we were part of during the First World War.”

Mr Varadkar said he was wearing it to mark the centennial of the ending of the war on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918, but added that he wore it last year and will wear it again next year.

“I think it’s particularly important this year because it’s the centenary, but I also think it’s important every year. A few times in our history we’ve kind of re-invented our history but now that we have a decent distance from that period, we can perhaps be a bit more honest about it so I think by understanding our shared history we can help to breed understanding, but it’s not designed to challenge anyone’s loyalties.

“If you think about it, if you go back to the First World War, a lot of the people who fought in that war fought on the same side, they would have been Protestants and Unionists in Northern Ireland and also a lot of Catholics from the southern part of Ireland who at that time believed in Home Rule, and of course Home Rule would have meant staying in the British Empire.

“I think it’s useful for us as a country to acknowledge the complexity of our history that for a long period of time Ireland was very much part of the Empire and were very much part of the imperial enterprise, occupying places like India for example.

Then with a smile he added: “Irish people on my mum’s side occupied my dad’s country…as British people, even though they’re from Ireland.

“I think it’s always useful for us to experience our shared history in a way that helps us to understand it better but not in a way that questions loyalty.

Asked if he was concerned that Brexit was causing a rupture he agreed. “I think anything that pulls Ireland and Britain apart, and anything that pulls the two communities in Northern Ireland apart is moving backwards. So much has been done in the last 30 years to improve relations between Britain and Ireland and the relations between the two communities in Northern Ireland.

“I think moments like the Armistice, 11 November, allow us to remember that shed blood together.”

Watch the interview here.

Irish football star James McClean has been sent death threats over refusal to wear a poppy commemorating British soldiers