A unionist politician has branded the upcoming attendance of Martin McGuinness at the site of the Battle of the Somme as a “stunt”.
The former top IRA figure has announced he will be visiting a couple of World War One battlefields next week, alongside by Sinn Fein vice president Mary Lou McDonald.
The move was dismissed by the TUV’s Jim Allister, who said there was little “sincerity” in the Deputy First Minister’s gesture.
However, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said it would not be right to “seek to exclude people” from acts of remembrance.
Meanwhile, the curator of a project aimed at remembering the First World War suggested it could be positive, since it might highlight the fact hundreds of thousands of men of varying backgrounds from across the island of Ireland took part in the fighting.
Mr McGuinness said he is making the trip in a “spirit of reconciliation”, whilst Ms McDonald said that it was “right to remember” the conflict – even though republicans were opposed what she described as an “imperialist” war.
Mr McGuinness will visit the Flanders region of northern Belgium – a region commemorated in the noted war poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.
Mr McGuinness will also visit the Somme region of neighbouring France.
In a statement, Mr McGuinness said: “I am doing so in a sincere effort to recognise the human suffering and also the importance these events hold for the unionist section of our people.”
Sinn Fein vice-president Mary Lou McDonald said: “Republicans opposed the imperialist First World War and the subsequent slaughter which claimed the lives of millions. However, the loss of tens of thousands of Irish and Ulster Volunteers left a huge mark on our society.
“In this decade of anniversaries it is right to remember those who died in Flanders and at the Somme in a respectful and inclusive fashion.”
Jim Allister, leader of the TUV and MLA for North Antrim (who has a great uncle who fell at the Somme) said: “It’s obviously a stunt. There are events at home that Mr McGuinness could do better to come to terms with.
“Namely, his active role in the directing and oversight of terrorism. I think if he began by facing the reality of that it’d be more impressive than a stunt in Flanders...
“I don’t think there’s any sincerity to it. I think it’s about just politicking.”
Jeffrey Donaldson, Lagan Valley MP and chairman of the Northern Ireland World War One Centenary Committee (which is tasked with organising commemorative events), said: “We must bear in mind that many of the soldiers from Ulster who died in the First World War were Irish nationalists.
“Many of them were members of the Irish Volunteers. And therefore if nationalist politicians want to pay tribute to the sacrifice of those soldiers who died in British uniforms fighting for our freedom, then I think that’s something to be encouraged...
“We should not seek to exclude people from that remembrance.”
David McCallion, curator of museum project War Years Remembered, said that about 210,000 men in total from the island of Ireland journeyed to the front during the war. About 50,000 did not return.
Asked what he thought about the Deputy First Minister’s planned visit, he stressed that he was totally non-political in his outlook.
“I’m glad to see that he’s going out there,” he said.
“At the end of the day I know there’s a lot of people out there will have views and say that he shouldn’t go there, et cetera... But I’m glad that any man would go out there and remember our war dead.”
He added: “If he’s going to genuinely represent those Irishmen, and lay a wreath on their behalf, I’m nore than happy that it’s done.”
Such recognition, he said, was “long overdue”.
A spokesperson for The Executive Office (formerly the Office of the First and Deputy First Minister) said Mr McGuinness has been invited to Somme events before.
Sinn Fein members attended a remembrance event for the Somme last July in Belfast, laying a plain green wreath at the Cenotaph in the absence of any UK flags or anthem.
First Minister Arlene Foster herself has accepted an invitation to commemorate of the centenary of the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval, France ,on July 1.
The News Letter had previously reported that Sinn Fein was “considering a number of invitations to commemorate the Battle of the Somme”.
In response, earlier this month ex-NI Conservatives chairman Trevor Ringland said that “Sinn Fein will always take a pragmatic attitude to reconciliation, as opposed to the genuine reconciliation between the rest of the people on this island”.