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Thursday 8 December 2016

Official commemoration in Dublin to honour Irish soldiers who fought in Somme would be 'welcome'

Minister of Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan is the first cabinet minister to attend a Somme remembrance event in Belfast
Minister of Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan is the first cabinet minister to attend a Somme remembrance event in Belfast

An official commemoration in Dublin to mark next year's centenary of the Battle of the Somme will be another step toward enhancing recognition of the Irish soldiers who fought and died, a government minister has said.

Ireland's Minister of Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan made the prediction as he became the first cabinet minister to attend a Somme remembrance event in Belfast.

Mr Flanagan today joined Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers, Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and other dignitaries in laying wreaths at the cenotaph at Belfast City Hall to mark the 99th anniversary of a battle that costs the lives of thousands of soldiers from pre-partition Ireland.

Since the advent of the Northern Ireland peace process, official attitudes in Dublin toward the First World War have changed markedly.

Whereas in decades gone by the contribution of Irish soldiers to Britain's war efforts was downplayed and neglected, with veterans maligned and discriminated against, the state has gradually moved to a position of affording more recognition to their sacrifice.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny has attended Remembrance Sunday events in Northern Ireland over the last three years and now the Dublin government is planning its own event to mark the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme next July.

Mr Flanagan said the event was a key part in a decade of commemorations. Next year will also see the 100th anniversary of the republican Easter Rising in Dublin.

"I believe it is important that all aspects of our history are fully recognised, are fully met and are marked in a way that is sensitive to our shared traditions," he said.

"For many years, indeed for many decades, the Irish involvement in the First World War was under-appreciated and neglected. We refused to accept that participation.

"I welcome the fact these changes have taken place and we are recognising that tens of thousands of people from what is now the Irish Republic fought in the First World War and never came back."

Mr Flanagan laid a laurel wreath at the cenotaph during this morning's commemorative event.

"My presence here today is part of that process of reconciliation," he said afterwards.

"A process of recognising the diversity of the different traditions on the island. My hope is for next year for the 100th anniversary of the Somme that we will have moved the reconciliation agenda further forward."

Ms Villiers said the UK government was working hard with ministers in Belfast and Dublin to ensure appropriate centenary commemorations were held.

She said it was fitting that civic leaders today marked the "unimaginable sacrifice" made by soldiers from across Britain and Ireland.

"We are in a decade of important centenaries in these islands and it is going to be very important that those sensitive and potentially difficult centenaries are commemorated over the years to come in a spirit of reconciliation and friendship across the UK and Ireland," she said.

"We have been working together across government in Whitehall and with the Northern Ireland Executive and indeed with the Irish government to try to ensure that these commemorations are used in a spirit of historical accuracy and objectivity to mark the history we share.

"There is one thing we can learn from these centenaries - there is a huge amount we have in common across these islands."

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