Lord Empey has welcomed renewed calls for military personnel to be given a fair deal on everyday issues such as school provision and social housing.
Earlier this week, a report by senior Tory Lord Ashcroft made a number of UK-wide recommendations to improve the lot of service veterans.
One crucial proposal would see Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act – the law which enacted the 1998 Belfast Agreement which prohibits discrimination on factors such as race or religion – amended “to enable service leavers and veterans to receive the recognition and provision they deserve”.
Lord Empey has been campaigning for the UK’s Armed Forces Covenant to be extended to include Northern Ireland and wrote to Lord Astor, the under secretary of state for defence over two years ago to lobby for the change.
In his reply, Lord Astor said: “Clearly, any proposal that special provision should be made for service people, whether contained within the annual Armed Forces Covenant report or elsewhere, will need to be considered on its own merits to ensure that it does not unlawfully discriminate against any other group.”
The current Northern Ireland legislation, which stemmed from the Good Friday Agreement, should be changed to make discrimination against serving or former military personnel illegal, the latest government-commissioned report has said.
Sinn Fein would not be able to veto the proposal as the issue will be a matter for Westminster.
There is broad political support for the covenant being introduced in Northern Ireland with Lord Empey among the big name backers.
He said there should be “security vetted Armed Forces champion” in the Province to enable people leaving the services to claim entitlements “without fear for their personal security”.
Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, Lord Empey said: “It is an issue that we have been pursuing for some time. At the moment, most people in the sector who provide services to ex-military personnel and their families would say they are operating pretty good at the moment. However, the danger is that may not necessarily always be the same.”
Lord Empey said the ministers in charge of the relevant departments “would be cooperative”, but said there were no guarantees that cooperative ministers would always be in office.
“Soldiers serve the whole of the United Kingdom – it is not a subject that is ever going to be devolved – therefore we have an obligation and a duty to ensure that it is not a postcode lottery.
“Basically the same level of service should be available in any part of the United Kingdom. We have got to ensure there is equality of treatment throughout the country.”
The former Ulster Unionist leader added: “We will be monitoring things very closely as we go forward. We will be relying on the people who receive services, or who believe they are entitled to help to let us know if they see issues arising that mean they are not being properly treated.”
Another supporter of the Covenant is Lagan Valley MLA Brenda Hale whose soldier husband Mark was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.
She described the new report as a “massive step forward”.
The DUP representative added: “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.”
l More details about the Veterans’ Transition Review can be found at www.veteranstransition.co.uk.