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I want to be a first minister for all, says Michelle O’Neill after laying Somme wreath

But DUP hits out over ‘segregated commemoration’ as SF chief skips official ceremony

Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill and the Lord Mayor of Belfast Tina Black have both laid a wreath at Belfast City Hall to commemorate the Battle of the Somme.

However, while the pair attended an initial low-key ceremony in the city on Friday morning, they turned up ahead of the main official commemorative event marking the first day of the battle.

When asked why she was not attending the formal commemorative event for the Somme and had instead chosen to lay a wreath two hours before it was due to begin, the vice president declined to be drawn on the matter and said people shouldn’t “get distracted”.

"I don't think we should get distracted from the fact that this is quite significant, the fact that I have laid a wreath this morning, along with our mayor Tina Black," she said.

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Michelle O'Neill and Lord Mayor Tina Black Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Michelle O'Neill and Lord Mayor Tina Black Liam McBurney/PA Wire

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Michelle O'Neill and Lord Mayor Tina Black Liam McBurney/PA Wire

"I'm doing so to be respectful, I'm doing so to actually try to reach out the hand of friendship to actually show political leadership. And I think that will not be lost in the wider public."

She added: "I hope that sends out a strong message that I do genuinely want to lead for everybody in this society."

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Ms O'Neill also declined to be drawn on whether Sinn Fein would consider attending official Somme commemorations in the future.

Asked whether she felt her gestures were being reciprocated by political unionism, she said: "What I'm doing today is not about reciprocation, it's actually about demonstrating respect and my leadership, and what I'm determined to do, regardless of what others decide to do."

Sinn Fein lord mayors in the capital have laid a laurel wreath on the anniversary of the First World War battle in previous years, but this is the first time a member of the party's leadership has taken part in any capacity.

Last July she and the DUP’s Paul Givan, at that point deputy first minister and first minister respectively, attended a commemorative ceremony at the Irish National War Memorial in Islandbridge, Dublin.

It was the first time a Sinn Fein politician had attended a wreath-laying event organised by the Royal British Legion.

"I said throughout the election campaign that I wanted to be a first minister for all and I hope that today's attendance and the laying of a wreath is actually a demonstration of someone who wants to work for all in our community," Ms O'Neill added.

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The message left by Michelle O'Neill Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The message left by Michelle O'Neill Liam McBurney/PA Wire

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The message left by Michelle O'Neill Liam McBurney/PA Wire

"I think as political leaders, we have a responsibility to reach beyond our comfort zones and actually reach out the hand of friendship, and to try to do whatever we can in terms of leadership in terms of healing the wounds of the past.

"So, I'm very pleased to be here this morning to have laid a wreath in terms of all those lives lost."

As lord mayor of Belfast in 2002, Alex Maskey became the first Sinn Fein politician to lay a wreath in memory of the people killed at the Somme.

At the time, he described it as a “difficult decision” because of republican opposition to the Army and the use of British flags and emblems.

The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest and bloodiest of the First World War. It saw the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division, representing the two main traditions, distinguish themselves at a great cost.


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