Page last updated at 05:53 GMT, Friday, 20 June 2008 06:53 UK

Sinn Fein mayor to lay WWI wreath

Scene from BBC Somme drama
More than 2,000 soldiers from the Ulster Division died on the first day

Belfast's Lord Mayor has called for an act of civic remembrance for those who have died in war and conflict.

Sinn Féin's Tom Hartley said that he would lay a wreath at the city hall on 1 July in memory of the Somme fallen of WWI, but not at the military ceremony.

He said he would lay a wreath at 0900 BST, then chair a council meeting.

"I believe this level of direct participation to mark the Somme anniversary is appropriate for me as mayor of Belfast," he said.

Mr Hartley said he believed the act would consolidate and build on initiatives taken by Sinn Féin's 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.

He said that nationalists have largely "felt alienated from these formal military events with all of the British symbolism involved" but that this has resulted in 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," he said.

"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."

He added that remembrance was "too personal and too sensitive an issue to become a political football".

Tom Hartley
Tom Hartley is to lay a laurel wreath

Soldiers from the 36th (Ulster) and 16th (Irish) divisions took part in the WWI battle and were in the thick of the fighting between 1 July and 13 November 1916.

The 36th sustained 5,500 casualties on the first day, with nearly 2,000 of those fatalities.

During the battle in September the 16th had 4,330 casualties, of whom 1,200 were killed.

The Battle of the Somme claimed the lives of 420,000 British soldiers.

French casualties were estimated at 195,000 and the German loss of life was about 650,000.

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