Northern Ireland

Belfast Council to offer Irish minister Somme invitation

Crosses mark the graves of unknown soldiers killed in the Battle of Somme
Image caption An Irish government minister will be invited to the Battle of the Somme commemorations in Belfast

An Irish government minister will be invited for the first time to the Battle of the Somme commemorations at Belfast City Hall.

SDLP councillor Pat McCarthy proposed the move which was discussed at a city council meeting on Wednesday evening.

There was no opposition to the motion. The DUP, the UUP and the Alliance Party backed the SDLP.

Sinn Fein tried to amend the motion by having the issue dealt with by a working group of the council.

The party abstained from the vote.

An Irish government spokesperson said if an invitation was received to the Somme and Remembrance Sunday commemorations in Belfast, the government "would look positively at being represented".

Mr McCarthy said times were changing, including attitudes to the World War I dead.

"For a long time in the history of the Republic that period was forgotten and was something which was never talked about.

"But that has now changed and there are many groups which have been formed to look at the history of people from the local area who took part in the First World War, indeed it is to be welcomed as it is part of the complex relationships between all parts of Ireland," he said.

Mr McCarthy said the Queen's visit to Dublin would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.

"I think it is now time that we took another step along the road to strengthen normal relationships between people of goodwill by inviting the government in Dublin to participate at the Somme Commemoration and the Remembrance Sunday ceremony in our city."

Speaking prior to the vote, DUP councillor Robin Newton acknowledged the positive impact of the Queen's recent visit to the Republic.

"We know that was a building of relationships between the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain and indeed between the Republic and Northern Ireland," Mr Newton said.

He pointed out that the Irish prime minister had also visited the cenotaph in Belfast.

"He observed the recognition of the contribution that men of the Republic had made and indeed the discussions in the Dail around how they had treated soldiers that had served with British Regiments and fought for freedom, not the freedom just for us in Northern Ireland but in the world, including the Republic of Ireland - the need to observe that contribution."

However, Jim McVeigh, Sinn Fein, said: "I found out last year that the brother of my grandmother had died ironically on 12 July at the Battle of the Somme fighting with the Royal Leinster division.

"Later this year we hope to travel to the cemetery where he is buried to lay a wreath.

"There is no contradiction between that and our unwillingness to participate in some events that for example British military regiments attend. I think we should be sensible.

"We want to commemorate and reflect on these events in a way that pays respect to the dead but also does not celebrate for the tens of millions of people slaughtered in World War I."

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