It is a pleasure to follow Kevin Foster, whom I thank for his contribution, and to speak in this debate. Indeed, it is pleasure to follow all the incredible contributions from right hon. and hon. Members, particularly those of the Secretary of State and shadow Secretary of State.
I am proud to have served in the armed forces, in the Ulster Defence Regiment and the Territorial Army, in the Royal Artillery. I am proud to have worn that uniform and served my Queen and country. Northern Ireland has a very strong and proud service history. Newtownards, the main town in my borough, was home to the legendary Blair Mayne, who received the highest awards for bravery during the second world war and for whom we still await the posthumous recognition that so rightly belongs to him—his earned but withheld Victoria Cross.
I will take a similar theme to my right hon. Friend Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson. A total of 206,000 Irishmen served in the British forces during the first world war, and another130,000 were volunteers recruited from Ireland for the duration of the war; of these, some 24,000 originated from the Redmondite national volunteers, and 26,000 joined from the Ulster volunteers; and 80,000 of those recruits had no experience in either the paramilitary formations before going to war. The recruitment rate in Ulster matched that in Britain itself, and that in Leinster and Munster was about two thirds of that in Britain, while Connacht lagged behind them. Northern Catholics enlisted just as often as Protestants. The German bullet did not distinguish between Catholic and Protestant, between nationalist and Unionist—anyone who fought the German empire was fair game.
Members might wonder why I have taken so long to outline the wholeness of Ireland at that time. The answer is this: I am tired of this remembrance event being politicised and turned so that wearing a poppy becomes a declaration of allegiance. Wearing a poppy is merely being respectful and thankful to those who laid down their lives to allow us the freedom we so unthinkingly enjoy today.
I was not surprised to learn that more than 50 contracted and former Celtic football players fought in world war one. William Angus was awarded the Victoria Cross. I once read an article that stated:
“The remarks attributed to National Volunteer and poet, Francis Ledwidge, who was to die in preparation of the Third battle of Ypres in 1917, perhaps best exemplifies the changing…nationalist sentiment towards enlisting, the War, and to the Germans and British.”
Those remarks were:
“I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions”.
They fought while maintaining their nationalism, but now it seems that some refuse to remember for fear of somehow losing their nationalism. It is a very sad state of affairs. I am not swayed by the affiliation of any person who fought against the Germans. I am equally grateful to them all and honour them today.
In this the centenary of the first world war, I long for an end to the discussions of white poppies, for an end to the discussions of British imperialism, for an end to the discussions of sectarianism. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley, I long to stand as we did then.