Somme: Annual Ulster service attracts regular Essex attendees

Former Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry
Former Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry

For all the emphasis on cross-community participation, the Somme commemorations at the Ulster Memorial Tower is a very Northern Irish affair – for good reason, given the way in which the sacrifice of soldiers from the Province is seared into the NI psyche.

But there are a regular visitors to the annual service at the tower, including on Friday a couple from Essex and a former Labour MP for an Essex constituency.

Frances, left, and Mike Speakman, from Redbridge in Essex at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry

Frances, left, and Mike Speakman, from Redbridge in Essex at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval, on the 100th anniversary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, July 1 2016. By Ben Lowry

Andrew Mackinlay, pictured top, who represented Thurrock from 1992 to 2010, said: “I have been attending this commemoration for 20 years. For me, it is a service of commemoration, reflection and reconciliation.”

Mr Mackinlay, who takes a close interest in Northern Ireland and visits regularly with his wife Ruth, added: “The events of 100 years ago still shape and mould so much of our political geography and the problems of our common European home.”

A retired couple from Redbridge in Essex who have no Northern Ireland connections have also become annual visitors to the Ulster Tower.

Mike and Frances Speakman were visiting the war sites while Frances researched the history of soldiers who are commemorated on a memorial in Ilford.

“We were looking around the area and obviously we found this [the tower],” said Frances. “You can’t miss it.”

They became friendly with people from Ireland and returned, which was the beginning of a pattern. They have now attended the Ulster Tower for its July 1 service for 27 years. “It is always a good service,” said Mike.