Belfast Telegraph

Veterans plan Somme event boycott if Sinn Fein's McGuinness attends

By Adrian Rutherford

Army veterans have threatened to pull out of a major Battle of the Somme centenary event if Martin McGuinness attends.

The Deputy First Minister has been invited to a memorial service in France on July 1. Although he has yet to respond, Sinn Fein said the invitation would be considered.

It has caused anger among military veterans who feel Mr McGuinness should not attend because of his IRA past.

Phil Hamilton, a former UDR member and a member of Rathcoole Friends of the Somme Association, said he would pull out if Mr McGuinness attended.

"I won't be going if Martin McGuinness is there," he told the Belfast Telegraph. "I have spoken to a lot of ex-soldiers today and they are of the same view."

Major events will be held across the UK and France on July 1 to mark the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest of the First World War, with more than a million casualties.

Men of the 36th (Ulster) Division were among 100,000 Allied soldiers who went over the top on July 1, 1916.

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

The Northern Ireland service will be at the Ulster Tower - a memorial to the Ulster soldiers who fought.

The Belfast Telegraph reported yesterday that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are on the guest list for the event.

While Arlene Foster has indicated she will attend, 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."

However, Mr Hamilton said it would be hurtful for Mr McGuinness to turn up.

"I think it's very insensitive, particularly at that time of the year, to invite someone with the baggage that Martin McGuinness brings," he said.

"It is solely down to who he is and who he has represented. He says he is a proud Irish republican. I've been on the receiving end of an IRA attack, I've been threatened and my family has been intimidated by the IRA.

"I'd feel very uncomfortable and uneasy wanting to pay my respects to the Fallen with the presence of Martin McGuinness.

"It's not to say he or Sinn Fein couldn't send someone along who doesn't have that baggage. That is the big issue - I just think he is the wrong person."

Mr Hamilton claimed Mr McGuinness's presence in France would amount to political point-scoring, and said a better effort at reconciliation would be Sinn Fein support for the Military Covenant - a Government promise to look after former members of the Armed Forces.

He also suggested Mr McGuinness could attend a centenary service next year marking the Battle of Messines, where the 16th (Irish) and 36th Divisions fought side-by-side.

"He has declined invitations in the past, and turning up to the 100th anniversary to me would be solely political point-scoring," he added. "We need to keep politics out of commemorations."

Cecil Wright, who chairs the Friends of the Somme Association's mid-Antrim branch, said that while Mr McGuinness's presence would be seen by some as a move towards reconciliation, it would be difficult for him to attend the Ulster Tower event.

"If he wants to go and people accept that, fine. But if it's the Ulster Tower, I don't think he'll be accepted there," he added.

"It's a step forward, but I just don't see him being welcome at the Tower. If he goes, then people will maybe see that he's trying, but the Ulster Tower is not the place to go, in my opinion."

The Northern Ireland service has been organised by the Somme Association, and it is understood it issued the invitation to Mr McGuinness.

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

Sinn Fein Lord Mayors have yet to attend the main Somme ceremony amid concerns about British military trappings.

Jeffrey Donaldson, who chairs the Northern Ireland World War One Centenary Committee, said he understood the sensitivities.

"At the Somme we had both the 36th (Ulster) Division who began their engagement in July, and the 16th (Irish) Division, who began their engagement in September," he added.

"Both unionists and nationalists, Catholics and Protestants, from the island of Ireland fought together at the Somme and died together. We therefore feel it is important that their sacrifice is properly commemorated.

"There is the need for sensitivity, but we do not believe it would be in the spirit of that sacrifice to exclude anyone on the basis of contemporary politics."

A number of high-profile ceremonies will take place in the UK and France to mark the centenary of the start of battle.

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

In France the main ceremony will be held at Thiepval, where a memorial stands to over 72,000 men who died and have no known grave, and where senior royals and politicians will join a crowd of 10,000 paying respect.

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

The day will start with a dawn service at Lochnagar crater.

Belfast Telegraph


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