AN offer by the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast to take part in future remembrance events has been dismissed by unionists as “a hollow gesture”.
The row flared following yesterday’s service outside Belfast City Hall to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.
After laying a laurel wreath at the City Hall cenotaph — two hours ahead of the official act of remembrance — Niall O Donnghaile said republicans would consider attending the main event if changes were made to the current format.
The conditions laid down by Sinn Fein included a stipulation that the commemorations should have no “British Army” involvement.
At yesterday’s event, the Royal Irish Regiment led proceedings and its guard of honour was accompanied by the brass instruments of The Light Cavalry Band.
A congregation looked on in silence as wreaths were laid at the monument by decorated ex-servicemen and political representatives, including UUP leader Tom Elliott and Nigel Dodds of the DUP.
East Belfast MLA Michael Copeland said the lord mayor’s position “flies in the face of the recorded history of this island”.
A former Ulster Defence Regiment lieutenant with a keen interest in military history, Mr Copeland said yesterday’s commemoration had its roots in the “collective suffering of the Great War of 1914 to 1918”.
“Before during and after that conflict, the men and women of Ireland played a significant role within the ranks of what Mr O’Donnghaile refers to as the British Army, with some 350,000 serving during the Great War — an amazing figure given the absence of conscription on this island,” the Ulster Unionist assemblyman said.
Mr O’Donnghaile said the annual Somme commemoration should become primarily civic in nature as opposed to political.
“I think even the most begrudging of unionists would appreciate the fact that for an Irish republican mayor this [laying the laurel wreath] is quite a significant step to take and I hope that does resonate with the unionist citizens of Belfast, that we are determined to remember in a civic and appropriate way all of those differing men who gave their lives at the Somme,” he said.
Mr O’Donnghaile acknowledged the issues of remembrance as being “very sensitive” in the city but added: “We won’t be taking part in the official ceremony which involves the British Army.”
Mr Copeland said the Sinn Fein gesture was “meaningless” unless the party gave a clear explanation of what type of commemoration was acceptable.
He said: “I recently attended an event hosted by the Royal Irish Regiment regarding their operation in Afghanistan and one of the most magnificent soldiers that evening was a native of the Republic of Ireland.”
The DUP leader on Belfast City Council, Robin Newton, said the Lord Mayor had a chance to prove his inclusive credentials but “he blew it” by not attending the official commemoration.
Alderman Newton said: “I regret very much that the Lord Mayor should have behaved in such an exclusionary and intolerant fashion.
“I note the Lord Mayor has tried to defend his exclusionary behaviour by claiming that if the format of the event was to be changed he would take part – this is a smokescreen.
“It’s time the Lord Mayor offered leadership, not excuses. I would strongly urge him to reflect on the hurt his actions will have caused and to reverse his stance in time for Remembrance Day.”
Mr Newton said Sinn Fein were “refusing to act responsibly” and added: “The rest of Northern Ireland is moving forward, but it seems that the Sinn Fein lord mayor of Belfast is stuck in the past.”