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Martin McGuinness lays a wreath for the heroes killed during World War One

By Noel McAdam political correspondent

Published 02/06/2016

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness lays a wreath with Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness lays a wreath with Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, Messines
Mr McGuinness touches a memorial to the 16th Irish Division
Conor Heaney, an advisor to Mr McGuinness, alongside the grave of his grandfather

Martin McGuinness yesterday paid tribute to the thousands of British soldiers killed on the battlefields of the First World War.

The former Provisional IRA commander claimed his trip was about "reaching out the hand of friendship to unionists".

He said it was a "sincere effort to recognise the human suffering and also the importance these events hold for the unionist section of our people".

Laying a wreath at the Island of Ireland Peace Park, close to Flanders Field yesterday, the Deputy First Minister said his hugely symbolic visit - which will also take in the Somme later today - was also about showing leadership.

As the Belfast Telegraph revealed last month, the senior republican declined an invitation to attend the official ceremony to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme on July 1 because others said they would avoid the event if he was there.

But Mr McGuinness said he hoped yesterday's visit ahead of next month's ceremony would help build a better future in Northern Ireland.

"I come here as a proud Irish republican to recognise the deaths of thousands of Irishmen during the course of the catastrophic imperialist First World War, which claimed millions of lives," he added.

"It is important I come here as Deputy First Minister in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, showing leadership and reaching out the hand of friendship to unionists.

"Tens of thousands of Irishmen from across the island died in the First World War, and it is important to recognise that. They are part of who we are. I hope this visit is a further step towards reconciliation.

"It is an opportunity to remember the past in a mature way and to build a better future for everyone."

Mr McGuinness also told how he had recently discovered that his special adviser, Conor Heaney, had a great grandfather, Patrick, killed at the Somme.

After visiting the grave, the Londonderry man said it had been a poignant occasion for him as a life-long republican.

"More and more republicans have been coming forward to tell me that their relatives were also killed and are also buried here," he added. "So I think this is part of our shared and complicated history in Ireland."

Special adviser Mr Heaney added that he had made a long journey, both geographically and psychologically.

More than 2,500 soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division died in the first days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. While the 36th Ulster Division was largely unionist, thousands of nationalists later saw action as part of the 16th Irish Division.

The Battle of Messines started on June 7, 1917, and more than 40,000 men lost their lives before it was over.

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