Martin McGuinness visits Menin Gate at Ypres as part of Somme visit
'I come here as a proud Irish republican to recognise the deaths of thousands of Irish men during the course of the catastrophic imperialist First World War'
Sinn Fein deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has visited the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium as part of his trip to the Somme.
Mr McGuinness tweeted a picture of himself alongside fellow Sinn Fein members, his special adviser Conor Heaney, MLA Declan Kearney and the party's deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald late on Tuesday night.
The Menin Gate Memorial to the Missing is dedicated to those British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in Ypres.
It records the 55,000 soldiers who died in Flanders and have no known grave.
Winston Churchill said that 'a more sacred place for the British race does not exist'.
"Names and enormity of #WorldWar1," Mr McGuinness said in his tweet.
In Flanders Fields... unthinkable things happen. Martin McGuinness pays his respects to the British Army's war dead. pic.twitter.com/ioehPGkKuy— David Blevins (@skydavidblevins) June 1, 2016
Speaking from Flanders, where he was joined by party Vice President Mary Lou MacDonald TD and party chair Declan Kearney MLA, McGuinness said: "I come here as a proud Irish republican to recognise the deaths of thousands of Irish men during the course of the catastrophic imperialist First World War, which claimed millions of lives.
"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 Irish men from across the island died in the First World War and it is important to recognise that. They are part of who we are.
"Recently I have discovered that many republicans, including my colleague in the Executive Office, Conor Heaney, whose great grandfather was killed at the Somme, lost relatives during the First World War.
"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."
The Derry MLA has been invited by the Flemish government to Flanders in Belgium for a two-day visit, to visit the sites of the Battle of Messines in 1917 and the Somme.
Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division were among the 100,000 Allied soldiers who went over the top at the Somme to fight the Germans on July 1, 1916.
It was one of the bloodiest battles of World War One with more than one million casualties over 141 days.
Mr McGuinness is visiting the site ahead of the centenary anniversary of the battle next month.
He said he was doing so as an act of reconciliation, to recognise human suffering and reach out to his unionist neighbours in Northern Ireland.
The veteran republican, however, declined to attend anniversary services saying he wanted to avoid controversy after an outcry that he may have be planning to be at the centenary events.