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McGuinness visits WWI battlefields and tells of hopes for reconciliation

Martin McGuinness lays a wreath to Ireland's fallen WWI soldiers in Messines. Picture by BBC.

MARTIN McGuinness will today make a ground-breaking visit to the World War One battlefield of the Somme in France.

The Sinn Féin deputy first minister will travel to the place where soldiers of the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish divisions fought together 100 years ago.

Mr McGuinness yesterday expressed hope that his visit to First World War battlefields will be another step toward reconciliation in Ireland.

The former IRA commander paid his respects to the thousands who fell while serving in the British Army at the battlefield at Flanders in Belguim.

He laid a wreath at the island of Ireland Peace Park in honour of the tens of thousands of men from Ireland who died in the First World War.

Mr McGuinness is making the trip with senior party colleagues including Sinn Féin vice president Mary Lou McDonald on the invitation of the Flemish government.

The visit came following an invite from the Flemish government to Flanders in Belgium, where the Battle of Messines took place in 1917.

More than 2,500 soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division died in the first days of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 - and the battlefields continue to hold great significance for the unionist community in Northern Ireland.

While the 36th Ulster Division was largely unionist in make-up, thousands of nationalists saw action later in Battle of the Somme as part of the 16th Irish Division.

He said he hoped his visit ahead of next month's commemorations would help build a better future back home.

"I come here as a proud Irish republican to recognise the deaths of thousands of Irish men 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 Irish men from across the island died in the First World War and it is important to recognise that. They are part of who we are.

"Recently I have discovered that many republicans, including my colleague in the Executive Office, Conor Heaney, whose great grandfather was killed at the Somme, lost relatives during the First World War.

"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."

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