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McGuinness visits WW1 battlefields and hopes for reconciliation

Published 01/06/2016

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, back, laying a wreath alongside minister-president of Flanders Geert Bourgeois at the First World War monument in Belgium (Sinn Fein/PA)
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, back, laying a wreath alongside minister-president of Flanders Geert Bourgeois at the First World War monument in Belgium (Sinn Fein/PA)

Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness has expressed hope that his visit to First World War battlefields will be another step toward reconciliation in Ireland.

The former IRA commander and current Stormont Deputy First Minister laid a wreath as he paid tribute to fallen soldiers on a tour of Flanders in Belgium.

Sinn Fein of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (centre) visiting the Island of Ireland Peace Park with Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois in Flanders, Belgium. PA
Sinn Fein of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (centre) visiting the Island of Ireland Peace Park with Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois in Flanders, Belgium. PA

Mr McGuinness will travel on to France on Thursday to visit the Somme.

More than 2,500 soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division died in the first days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 - and the battlefields continue to hold great significance for the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

While the 36th Ulster Division was largely unionist in make-up, thousands of nationalists saw action later in Battle of the Somme as part of the 16th Irish Division.

Mr McGuinness has declined an invite to attend the official ceremony to mark the centenary of the battle on July 1, claiming his presence had the potential to upset some participants.

He said he hoped his visit ahead of next month's commemorations would help build a better future back home.

"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," he said.

"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."

Sinn Fein vice president Mary Lou MacDonald and party chair Declan Kearney accompanied Mr McGuinness on his visit.

Sinn Fein of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (centre) visiting the Island of Ireland Peace Park with Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois in Flanders, Belgium. PA
Sinn Fein of Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness (centre) visiting the Island of Ireland Peace Park with Minister-President of Flanders Geert Bourgeois in Flanders, Belgium. PA

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