UUP MLA Doug Beattie has accused the First and Deputy First Minister of a “staggering” failure to address the needs of Veterans in Northern Ireland.
He was speaking after asking the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the Executive will be appointing a representative to the armed forces Covenant Reference Group and if not to outline the reason.
The covenant is an agreement between the government and forces veterans about their welfare.
He also asked what mechanisms are in place to ensure MLAs are made aware of the £10 million per annum Covenant Fund available to various charities and community groups.
The ministers replied: “The Armed Forces Covenant has not been adopted here and there has been no joint agreement to appoint a representative to the Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group.
“No specific arrangements were made to make members aware of the Covenant Fund; however, details of how to apply are available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covenant-fund-guidance-on-how-to-apply.”
The former RIR captain, who received a military Cross for bravery in Afghanistan, was angered by the response and said that the Ministry of Defence in London - and former Prime Minister David Cameron - both understood that the Covenant was being implemented well in Northern Ireland.
“This answer is not only staggering,” he said. “it lacks detail, coherence, humility or even a degree of understanding reality. Nor is it in keeping with what was outlined at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in 2013, at which the DUP was represented. At the Committee it was made clear that, bar specific devolved issues, there were no obstacles to delivering the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland.
“Further to that, in June this year I received a letter from Mark Lancaster TD MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State and Minister for Defence Personnel and Veterans. In it he stated, ‘While it is true that the implementation of certain aspects of the Covenant does present particular challenges for Northern Ireland, implementation of the Covenant there (Northern Ireland) is progressing at pace.’
“This was the same position that was verbally explained to myself and Andy Allen MLA by his predecessor, Anna Soubry MP, in 2014, and on multiple occasions by the former Prime Minister, David Cameron MP.”
The covenant has also been adopted in five out of 11 councils here, he said.
But the response from the First and Deputy First Ministers is “entirely at odds” with the understanding expressed by Mr Cameron and the MoD.
He went on to accuse the Executive of “turning a blind eye to delivering it”, and using Section 75 as “a feeble excuse for inaction”.
(Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act requires government and public authorities to ensure that equality of opportunity and good relations are central to policy making and service delivery).
The MLA also laid down a dramatic ultimatum to the First and Deputy First Ministers.
“If you cannot – or worse still, will not – deliver the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland, or even participate in the Covenant Reference Group, then get out of the way and allow the Opposition to engage. Our Veterans don’t want advantage; they just want to be treated fairly and not be disadvantaged because of their service.”