UUP MLA Doug Beattie has successfully broken a Stormont logjam by persuading nationalists to allow the appointment of someone to coordinate military veterans’ welfare in Northern Ireland.
Unionists have been trying to get cross-party approval to appoint a representative to the UK-wide Covenant Reference Group since 2011, he said.
However nationalists have repeatedly objected that this would giving service personnel returning to Northern Ireland an unfair advantage over their constituents in accessing public services.
The Covenant Reference Group is a cabinet level group which overseas the delivery of the government’s promise to look after former members of the armed forces.
A report by Lord Ashcroft last month concluded that people who leave military service “suffer discrimination” in Northern Ireland. It found use of Equality legislation to justify the NI Executive’s failure to appoint a representative to be “a nonsense”.
However, on Tuesday Mr Beattie praised nationalist politicians for heeding his arguments before the assembly voted in support of a nomination to the position.
The appointment will not change the legal rights of service personnel, but simply appoints someone to coordinate their welfare, he said.
“The SDLP made it quite clear they would abstain in the vote, which is quite laudable,” he said. “We also didn’t know until the last minute whether or not Sinn Fein would lodge a petition of concern, which they didn’t. And People Before Profit also abstained. That was also very positive.”
Mr Beattie said that in the current situation, people who leave the forces to return to Northern Ireland have no idea that they have the same entitlement to public services as everyone else, for example, in housing, education for their children and health care.
Normal MoD correspondence to education, health and housing agencies to help the transition to civilian life could divulge sensitive security information in a Northern Ireland context, he said; so many veterans prefer not to avail of such support.
However a Northern Ireland representative on the CRG will be able to resolve these problems for veterans while not breaching their security, he added.
Lagan Valley DUP MLA Brenda Hale, whose husband died while serving in Afghanistan, said that her party leader Arlene Foster had already nominated her appointment in a letter to the Cabinet Office. The DUP is now awaiting a response, she added.