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Martin McGuinness declines invitation to attend memorial event for Somme centenary to avoid controversy

By Adrian Rutherford and Jonny Bell

Published 25/05/2016

One of the Commonwealth war cemeteries around the Somme battlefield in northern France
One of the Commonwealth war cemeteries around the Somme battlefield in northern France
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

Martin McGuinness has decided not to accept an invitation to attend a memorial service marking the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme saying he does not want to be at the centre of controversy.

The Deputy First Minister revealed yesterday that he planned to visit the battle site next week instead, but he will not be in France for the major commemoration on July 1.

Speaking on BBC's Stephen Nolan radio show on the matter of attending the 100th anniversary, Mr McGuinness said: "I aware there has been controversy - people saying they won't go to the Somme if I was there.

"I am not going to be at centre of controversy preventing anyone from going to the Somme.

"If my attendance at any event at the Somme offends people then I won't be there."

There was controversy last week after the Belfast Telegraph reported that Mr McGuinness was considering an invite from the Somme Association to attend the event at the Ulster Tower. It is one of a series of major ceremonies planned across the UK and France to mark the 100th anniversary of the start of battle.

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Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division were among the 100,000 Allied soldiers who went over the top to fight the Germans on July 1, 1916.

The Northern Ireland service takes place at the Tower, which stands as a memorial to members of the Ulster battalions who fought at the Somme. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister were among a number of dignitaries named on the guest list.

A source said: "A reply was received from the First Minister and Deputy First Minister's office indicating that the First Minister will attend on July 1, but he (Mr McGuinness) would not be."

However, Mr McGuinness will visit the battle site ahead of the centenary. He is taking up an invitation from the Flemish government to visit Flanders Field next week, and will also visit the Somme.

He will be attending with senior Sinn Fein member and special advisor Conor Heaney whose great grandfather and great uncle were killed at the Somme.

Mr McGuinness said it was "a sincere effort" to recognise the suffering and the significance the centenary holds for the unionist community.

Mr McGuinness said: "World War One is an important part of Ireland's multi-layered history during which tens of thousands of Irish people lost their lives. If we are to build understanding and reconciliation on this island, we all need to recognise and accept the complexity of the historical events and differing political narratives that make us who we are as a community and as a people.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson welcomed the move.

He said: "The timing of this visit is particularly significant, happening in the run up to the centenary. The events of that day and the service and sacrifice of those men are of utmost importance to the Protestant unionist and loyalist communities in Northern Ireland. It is extremely significant this is being recognised by Mr McGuinness and his colleagues."

The invite to Mr McGuinness had caused anger in the unionist community.

Last week Phil Hamilton, a member of Rathcoole Friends of the Somme Association who is due to attend the service in France, said he would pull out if Mr McGuinness attended.

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