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Martin McGuinness: Why I, a proud republican, will be visiting the Somme

Published 27/05/2016

A stretcher party knee-deep in mud as they carry a casualty from a World War One battlefield
A stretcher party knee-deep in mud as they carry a casualty from a World War One battlefield
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

Writing exclusively for the Belfast Telegraph, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness explains why he believes next week’s Sinn Fein visit to the Somme battlefields is an important step towards reconciliation, following protests from some unionists and ex-soldiers over an invitation for him to attend a memorial service marking the battle’s centenary on July 1.

Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney once said we have a "through-other" history. To my mind, that is one of the most accurate and insightful descriptions of history on this island.

There is no doubt that our complex history has led to divisions in the past but it also presents the opportunity to create a new, shared future based on genuine reconciliation. 

Sinn Fein is committed to promoting and enhancing reconciliation and in recent years I and other members of my party have taken a number of significant initiatives aimed to advance this process. 

Next week I will take another such initiative when I travel to Flanders Fields and the Somme to mark the centenary of the First World War. I will do so at the invitation of the Flemish government to remember the tens of thousands of Irish men, many of them Irish nationalists, who died in the catastrophe of that war. 

I will attend next week's commemorations in Flanders as a proud Irish republican and will be accompanied by a number of my Sinn Fein colleagues, including deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald and party chair Declan Kearney. 

Remembering the loss of those Irishmen from all parts of the island who were sent to their deaths in the imperialist slaughter of the First World War is crucial to understanding our history. It is also important to recognise the special significance in which the Battle of the Somme and the First World War is held. 

I also hope to visit the grave of poet Francis Ledwidge when I am there. He is someone who epitomises Ireland's complex history given that he wrote of his great love for Ireland and, famously, a lament for one the Easter Rising leaders, Thomas McDonagh, yet he died fighting in the First World War.

Earlier this year I was proud and honoured to attend and take part in the commemorations in Dublin and across Ireland to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. 

Ahead of this important year of commemoration when we remember the anniversaries of hugely important events in our past which shaped our history - the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme - Sinn Fein made it clear that we intended to mark both milestones in a dignified, respectful and inclusive manner. 

These important commemorations provide opportunities to take the process of reconciliation and healing forward. 

If we are to build understanding and reconciliation on this island we all need to recognise and accept the complexity of the historical events and differing political narratives that make us who we are as a community and as a people. We all have a responsibility to advance the process of reconciliation and as a political leader, I am committed to leading from the front and to continue to take bold and significant steps. 

Commemorations can stimulate debate, which will ultimately lead to a greater understanding of the events of our "through-other" history and to shape a better future.

Belfast Telegraph

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