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Sinn Fein's McGuinness in tribute to all soldiers from Ireland who fell at the Somme

As Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister lays wreath, he voices hope gesture will contribute to the process of reconciliation

By Allan Preston

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has paid tribute to Irish soldiers from all parts of the island killed at the Somme after laying a memorial wreath at the First World War battlefield.

Speaking from Thiepval Wood in France yesterday, the Sinn Fein MLA said he hoped his visit would promote reconciliation. "It was very important for me to come here and to demonstrate respect and to remember those who died in the Battle of the Somme and the millions from all nations killed in a catastrophic imperialist war," he said.

The Battle of the Somme holds special significance for many in the unionist community after more than 2,500 soldiers from the 36th (Ulster) Division were killed in the conflict's opening days.

"Thousands of nationalists also fought at the Somme in the 16th (Irish) Division.

"We have a shared and complex history on the island of Ireland.

"As we move forward, we all have a responsibility to conduct ourselves in a way that is respectful and encourages reconciliation among our people.

"I hope that my presence here contributes to that reconciliation process in a positive and constructive way."

After being invited by the Flemish government, Mr McGuinness also laid a memorial wreath on Wednesday in Belgium close to Flanders Field. In 1917 the Battle of Messines there saw more than 40,000 men lose their lives. Speaking after the ceremony, Mr McGuinness said: "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: "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."

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

Last month the Belfast Telegraph reported Mr McGuinness declined an invitation to attend the official ceremony marking the centenary of start of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, saying his presence might upset some participants.

Mr McGuinness was accompanied by Sinn Fein vice-president Mary-Lou McDonald and party chair Declan Kearney on the trip.

Discovering a personal connection to the visit, Mr McGuinness said his special adviser Conor Heaney had recently learned his great-grandfather Patrick had been killed at the Somme. "More and more republicans have been coming forward to tell me that their relatives were also killed and are also buried here," he said. "So I think this is part of our shared and complicated history in Ireland."

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson had previously described the visit an important step. "The timing of this visit is particularly significant, happening in the run-up to the centenary," he said.

"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."

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