Northern Ireland

World War One: Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness lays wreath at Flanders battlefield

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Media captionMartin McGuinness laid a wreath along with Flanders Prime Minister Geert Bourgeois

Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness has laid a wreath at a World War One battlefield in Belgium.

Northern Ireland's deputy first minister was invited by the Flemish government to Flanders, where the Battle of Messines took place in 1917.

On Thursday, he will visit the Somme in France, where soldiers of the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) divisions fought together.

Mr McGuinness said his visit was "part of a journey towards reconciliation".

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Image caption Mr McGuinness was invited to the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines by the Flemish government

"I hope my visit here is seen as reaching out the hand of friendship to unionists, but also saying to unionists and to everybody else that many of the people who died here were as much part of what we [nationalists] as they were part of what they are," he said.

"If I am to be true to my desire to see peace and reconciliation, then visits like this are enormously important."

Mr McGuinness was accompanied to the Island of Ireland Peace Park at Messines by the party's vice-president Mary Lou MacDonald and its chairman Declan Kearney.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Mr McGuinness said his visit to Flanders was "part of a journey towards reconciliation"

The Battle of the Somme began on 1 July 1916 and did not end until 18 November that year.

More than 3,500 soldiers from the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) divisions were killed and thousands more were injured.

The official centenary commemorations next month will be attended by First Minister Arlene Foster.

The Battle of Messines started on 7 June 1917, and more than 40,000 men lost their lives in the fighting.

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