The legislation which stemmed from the Good Friday Agreement should be changed to make discrimination against serving or former military personnel illegal, a Government-commissioned report has said.
The report by senior Tory Lord Ashcroft made a number of UK-wide recommendations to improve the lot of veterans.
But a crucial part of the proposals would see Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act – the law which enacted the 1998 Belfast Agreement – amended.
Section 75 makes it an offence to discriminate against someone based on several named factors.
Those include, religion, race, age, disability and sexual orientation.
Under Lord Ashcroft’s proposals, that list would be amended “to enable service leavers and veterans to receive the recognition and provision they deserve”.
Given that the issue will be decided by Westminster, Sinn Fein will not be able to veto the proposal.
The proposal would bring Northern Ireland into line with the rest of the UK, where the Military Covenant has set out that military personnel should not be disadvantaged as a result of their service.
Lord Ashcroft said that Section 75 in its current form was an obstacle to enacting the Military Covenant in the Province.
Lord Ashcroft also recommended the appointment of “security-vetted Armed Forces champions in Northern Ireland to enable service leavers and veterans to claim entitlements without fear for their personal security”.
Given Lord Ashcroft’s position as a key ally of David Cameron, it is expected that his report’s recommendations will be implemented by the Government.
Lagan Valley MLA Brenda Hale, whose husband was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, said it was a “massive step forward”.
“I am personally delighted with the recommendations contained within this report, but I know it will be greeted with equal warmth by military families right across Northern Ireland.”
She added: “I hope the Government will now take forward these recommendations and our Armed Forces in Northern Ireland can receive the same treatment as they do across the rest of our United Kingdom.”
As part of his review, Lord Ashcroft visited Northern Ireland and met First Minister Peter Robinson and senior officers within 38 (Irish) Brigade.
The peer’s review also found that the prospects of Armed Forces veterans when they leave the services are being hampered by the popular belief that they are likely to be suffering from some form of physical, emotional or mental health problem.
But Lord Ashcroft found that the great majority did make the change successfully.