Gavin Robinson: The Armed Forces Covenant must serve our veterans equally
Northern Ireland’s veterans must get the full benefit of the Armed Forces Covenant and receive equal treatment to their colleagues in the rest of the UK, says Gavin Robinson
To those who proudly protect our nation, who do so with honour, courage and commitment, the Armed Forces Covenant is the nation’s commitment to you.” That’s the weighty declaration that greets you on arrival at the Armed Forces Covenant (AFC) website. A treaty forged through sorrow and sacrifice; our pledge to those who nobly set aside self for state. A universal pledge, with an untenable catch. The Armed Forces Covenant does not serve our veterans equally across the UK.
Our devolved arrangements throughout the United Kingdom naturally bring with them differing policy approaches and delivery, but in Northern Ireland, our past experience and ingrained political division has stymied the full implementation of the covenant.
During the 2016 annual inquiry, I highlighted a declaration from the then Northern Ireland health minister, Michelle O’Neill, who erroneously stated “the Armed Forces Covenant is not in force here”. Incidentally, even use of the word “here” arises from an intrinsic intolerance that seemingly prevents members of Sinn Féin from even using our region’s legal name!
Responding, the then veterans minister, Mark Lancaster, said: “I will travel to Northern Ireland in due course with a specific interest in, and commitment to, trying to get to the bottom of what more we can do to ensure that Northern Ireland does not end up – I do not believe that it is – a poor relation when it comes to delivery of the covenant.”
There has been an earnest desire to mainstream the Armed Forces Covenant in our service delivery; and to do so in a way that protects our veterans from being yet another political football. The Reserve Forces and Cadets Association in Northern Ireland has honourably sought to chart such a course and has established a network of armed forces champions within local government, support officials at the covenant reference group and liaise with public sector bodies on our veterans’ behalf.
But it can’t stop there. Our commitment to veterans led to the inclusion of an agreement to reach full implementation of the covenant in the “confidence and supply” agreement between my party and government last year.
As a region, our contribution to Reserve Forces is twice the national average. Per head of population, we raise more for the Poppy Appeal each year, and don’t forget that Operation Banner, which took place in Northern Ireland, remains the longest continuous deployment in British history. Spanning 38 years, almost 300,000 served; the Ulster Defence Regiment was formed from local volunteers and over the course of the operation, 1,441 paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Who could countenance the treatment and care of veterans in such circumstances being determined by a postcode lottery? Yet that’s exactly what happens. As a member of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, we are currently investigating the mental health and welfare of our veterans across the country and one huge distinction arises in Northern Ireland. Our local veterans live, work and, in many cases, recover in what was their theatre of war.
Imagine the impact that has on mental health, where fear arises and flashbacks appear because you reside in the area you served. You might drive down a street that was once the scene of a terrorist attack, use a service not knowing whether the person seeking your details was once your enemy or worse still, bump into someone who targeted you while on active duty.
If you seek help, however, there is no veteran-specific treatment centre in NI. While a wonderful facility, travelling to Combat Stress at Hollybush House in Ayr removes you from family, friends and vital support.
So what can we do? Government should deliver on a previous No 10 report that called for an armed forces champion in Northern Ireland. They should provide a purpose-built health facility locally and they should amend Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act to specifically provide equality protection to veterans.
The Belfast City motto is “Pro tanto quid retribuamus” which asks, “What shall we give in return for so much?” I trust colleagues will agree: full implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant is the only answer.
Gavin Robinson is MP for Belfast East and DUP spokesperson for defence