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Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness may attend Battle of the Somme 100th anniversary event

By Adrian Rutherford

Published 16/05/2016

Guest list: Martin McGuinness has been invited to the event in France
Guest list: Martin McGuinness has been invited to the event in France
The memorials to the men of the 36th Ulster Division

Martin McGuinness is considering an invite to attend a memorial service marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

The Deputy First Minister has been included on a draft guest list for the event in France on July 1.

Sinn Fein said any invitations to events will be considered.

A series of major ceremonies are planned across the UK and France on July 1 to mark the centenary.

The Somme was one of the bloodiest battles of World War One with more than one million casualties over 141 days.

The fighting began just before 7.30am on the morning of July 1, 1916.

Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division were among the 100,000 Allied soldiers who went over the top to face the Germans on the slopes around Thiepval and Beaumont-Hamel in the valley of the River Somme.

It was to become known as the British Army's bloodiest day.

More than 15,000 people are expected at three major centenary events taking place in northern France on July 1.

The Northern Ireland service, which has been organised by the Somme Association, takes place at 2.30pm local time at the Ulster Tower.

The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have been invited to the service.

While Arlene Foster has indicated she will attend, it is understood that Mr McGuinness has yet to respond.

A Sinn Fein spokesperson said: "Any invitations to events to commemorate the Battle of the Somme will be considered.

"Commemorations are not simply about remembering the past - they are also about looking to the future.

"Commemorations should be about gaining a deeper understanding of differing viewpoints, and should be seen as an opportunity to explore, understand and celebrate our differences.

"Commemorative events should aid reconciliation, and not deepen division."

Irish Government sources said Taoiseach Enda Kenny was expected to attend.

Last year Belfast Lord Mayor Arder Carson said Sinn Fein would consider attending events in Belfast to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.

It came after he laid a laurel wreath at the cenotaph at Belfast City Hall ahead of the main British Legion ceremony.

It followed the approach taken by former Sinn Fein Lord Mayors Alex Maskey, Tom Hartley, Niall O Donnghaile and Mairtin O Muilleoir.

Mr O Muilleoir made history in 2013 by becoming the first Sinn Fein Lord Mayor to attend a Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph.

However, party Lord Mayors have yet to attend the main Battle of the Somme ceremony amid concerns about British military trappings.

Speaking last July, Mr Carson said: "These things we keep under consideration all of the time. There are discussions and engagements all the time in relation to these type of events."

The Battle of the Somme has an indelible link with Northern Ireland given the scale of sacrifice.

The 36th (Ulster) Division was formed with units from the Ulster Volunteer Force, which had been raised in 1913 to fight against Home Rule in Ireland.

After training, it was deployed to France in September 1915.

By mid-March the division had taken over a section of the front line astride the River Ancre between Hamel and Thiepval.

On July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the men left their positions and made rapid progress as far as the German third line positions.

As the assaults on Beaumont-Hamel and Thiepval were quickly repulsed, the Germans soon turned their full strength on the Ulster men who were trapped by fire on their flanks and shelling.

The division suffered around 5,500 casualties - about 2,500 were killed.

A series of formal events will take place around the centenary of the start of the battle.

These include vigils at Helen's Tower in Co Down, Westminster Abbey in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff. A national commemoration will also take place in Manchester.

In France the main ceremony takes place at Thiepval, where the memorial stands to more than 72,000 men who died and have no known grave.

Around 10,000 people are expected to attend the event, organised by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on behalf of the British Government, the Mission du Centenaire on behalf of the French Government, The Royal British Legion and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Ahead of that, the day will start with a dawn service at Lochnagar Crater.

It was formed by one of a series of offensive mines blown along the front ahead of the major infantry attack.

At 2.30pm around 3,000 people will gather at the Ulster Tower for the Northern Ireland ceremony.

Belfast Telegraph

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