McGuinness pays tribute to Irish who fell in WWI
Published 02/06/2016 | 02:30
Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness has paid tribute to the thousands of British Army soldiers killed on the battlefields of World War One.
The former IRA commander, who is visiting First World War battle sites, claimed his trip was about "reaching out the hand of friendship to unionists".
He said it was a "sincere effort to recognise the human suffering and also the importance these events hold for the unionist section of our people".
Laying a wreath at the Island of Ireland Peace Park close to Flanders Fields yesterday, the North's Deputy First Minister said his hugely symbolic visit - which will include the Somme later today - was all about showing leadership.
He had previously declined an invitation to attend the official ceremony to mark the centenary of the battle on July 1, as it emerged his presence might lead to others not attending.
But Mr McGuinness said he hoped yesterday's visit ahead of next month's commemorations would help build a better future back in the North.
"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 said. "It is important I come here as Deputy First Minister in a spirit of peace and reconciliation, showing leadership and reaching out the hand of friendship to unionists.
"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. I hope this visit is a further step towards reconciliation.
"It is an opportunity to remember the past in a mature way and to build a better future for everyone."
Mr McGuinness said he had recently discovered that his own special adviser, Conor Heaney, had a great-grandfather, Patrick, who was killed at the Somme.
After visiting the grave, he said it had been a poignant occasion for him as a life-long republican.
"More and more republicans have been coming forward to tell me that their relatives were also killed and are also buried here. So I think this is part of our shared and complicated history in Ireland," he said.
More than 2,500 soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division died in the first days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916. While the division was largely unionist in make-up, thousands of nationalists saw action later in the Battle of the Somme.