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Belfast Mayor Outlines Approach to Somme Commemoration

19 June, 2008

Sinn Féin Mayor of Belfast Tom Hartley today announced his intention to lay a laurel wreath on July 1st at the City Hall in remembrance of those killed at the Somme. Cllr. Hartley also called for the City Council to take the lead in creating an act of civic remembrance that will create the space for people to remember all those who have died as a result of war and conflict.

Full text of Mayor Hartley's remarks

"Since becoming Mayor of this City earlier this month I have set out my stall as a Mayor who will represent all of the people in this city - regardless of political allegiance, gender, religious belief or none, ethnic background or sexual orientation.

On July 1st the annual commemoration for those who lost their lives at the Battle of the Somme will take place at the City Hall. As a local historian I know only too well the devastating effects of this battle on homes across Ireland but particularly here in Belfast. I am also acutely aware of the civic responsibility which comes from being Mayor of this city.

On the 1 July I will lay a laurel wreath at the Belfast Cenotaph at 9.00am to remember all those soldiers from the island of Ireland who lost their lives at the battle of the Somme. I will also chair the Special Council at 10.45am on the same morning.

I believe this level of direct participation to mark the Somme anniversary is appropriate for me as Mayor of Belfast.

I believe it consolidates and builds upon the initiatives taken by Alex Maskey during his term as Mayor and by Joe O'Donnell as Deputy Mayor to reach out to the unionist and protestant people of Belfast.

It clearly shows that republicans are committed to engaging with the unionist and protestant people and that we are prepared to meet them on common ground no matter how difficult it is for us as republicans to do so.

This is what making peace is all about. I am keen to show the continued commitment that republicans in this city have to building bridges into the unionist and protestant community.

For many years I have been involved in attempts to deal in a new and imaginative way with the potentially contentious issue of remembrance, particularly around those from across this island killed in the two World wars.

Those from the nationalist tradition have largely felt alienated from these formal military events with all of the British symbolism involved. The direct result of this has been the almost erasing from history of the sacrifices of tens of thousands of Irishmen.

We should not shy away from the reality that the formal Somme Commemoration here in this city will primarily appeal to only that section of the people of our city, who are from a unionist and protestant background.

We need to have an open and rational debate about how we commemorate these events in our shared past in an inclusive and non threatening fashion.

In the years since I first attended the Islandbridge commemorative event in 1995 I have been in contact with hundreds of individuals and dozens of organisations as to how we might go about de-politicising remembrance.

I believe that this Council must now lead the way in creating an act of civic remembrance that will create the space for people to remember all those who have died as a result of war and conflict.

I appreciate and fully understand that remembrance is a very personal and voluntary act and I am not seeking to take anyone to a place they are not yet comfortable going to. Remembrance is too personal and too sensitive an issue to become a political football. It cannot be forced and should never be faked.

As Mayor I am also conscious of the many victims of conflict and war, and their loved ones left behind, who are either overlooked by the existing acts of remembrance or who are uncomfortable with aspects of them. I would also like to state that such a future event is not intended to replace any of the existing commemorations that take place in the city and which mean so much to those who organise and attend them.

Yet as Mayor I have a responsibility to all the people of the city and I will seek to take forward this project in the year ahead. Councils need to establish all-inclusive ceremonies where everyone can participate.

I also believe that this presents many challenges for political unionism in this city. The use of commemorative events around the World wars in the past which primarily represents only one political tradition does a disservice to all who were killed and who suffered loss. We must collectively work to address that.

Let us not politick around this years event. Let those comfortable with the military commemoration have the space to attend it and remember their loved ones, let others do likewise." ENDS

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