Sinn Fein and SDLP ‘blocking veterans’ welfare’

Doug Beattie said the Executive Office response was staggering

Doug Beattie said the Executive Office response was staggering

Nationalists have been accused of using equality legislation to block Armed Forces veterans in Northern Ireland from getting equal welfare as their colleagues in Great Britain.

Doug Beattie, UUP MLA and former Royal Irish Regiment captain, said that the Stormont Executive was refusing to appoint someone to the Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group in order to coordinate veterans’ welfare across Northern Ireland.

And DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter that Sinn Fein and the SDLP are blocking the appointment.

The two nationalist parties – which previously used a petition of concern to obstruct the covenant – yesterday refused to comment.

The covenant is an agreement between the government and forces veterans about their welfare.

The story came to light after Mr Beattie received what he described as a “staggering” answer from the Executive Office – formerly the Office of First and Deputy First Minister – about whether they will make the appointment, and if not to outline the reason.

Although the Ministry of Defence said yesterday that the covenant is “enshrined in law” in Northern Ireland, the ministers told Mr Beattie that it “has not been adopted here” and there has been “no joint agreement to appoint a representative”.

The Executive Office also said there were no plans to make MLAs aware of the related Covenant Fund for veterans’ benefit.

Mr Beattie, who received a Military Cross for bravery in Afghanistan, said: “This answer is not only staggering. It lacks detail, coherence, humility or even a degree of understanding reality.”

There are 11 covenant champions across Northern Ireland, but without this appointment they have nobody to coordinate a strategic response to needs on the ground, nor to secure confidential health care, he said.

He went on to accuse the Executive of “turning a blind eye” by using Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act, which requires government to ensure equality of opportunity and good relations.

Asked if Sinn Fein was blocking the appointment at the Stormont Executive, DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter: “Yes. They and the SDLP blocked it.”

But he went on to say that the issues presented by Section 75 “cannot be ignored” and cited Lord Ashcroft’s recommendation that it be amended at Westminster.

The MOD said covenant funding bids are more successful in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain, with one grant of £450,000 made for their mental health.

Kenny Donaldson, spokesman for Innocent Victims United said: “As an absolute minimum Northern Ireland should be represented on the Armed Forces Covenant Group and it is scandalous that this has yet to happen.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said Section 75 “may need adjustment” but that there is “no question that the Executive both could and should do more”.

He added that former NIO minister Mike Penning told MPs that the Executive had failed to even respond to an invitation to discuss veterans’ welfare.

“One suspects that it was the Sinn Fein veto in action, again!”