It is a “disgrace” that Northern Ireland has never had a voice on the panel that overseas the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant since it was set up in 2011, a veteran and MLA has claimed.
UUP MLA Doug Beattie MC, a former Captain in the Royal Irish, was speaking to the Johnston Press Investigations Team as part of its series on suicide and mental health among military veterans.
The Covenant is a UK national promise to treat veterans fairly in terms of health, education, housing and employment in the context of the disrupted lives they must lead in service of their country.
The Covenant Reference Group (CRG) is a national panel which helps coordinate the implementation of the covenant across the UK, but despite the fact that it has been running since 2011, Northern Ireland has never had a public appointment to it.
In December 2016 a motion by Doug Beattie in the assembly to make an appointment was passed by the assembly, opposed by Sinn Fein and with SDLP abstention.
The DUP then nominated then MLA Brenda Hale to take up the post, however she never attended the group. But Mr Beattie asked why the DUP had not so before then, claiming it only did so because he raised the matter in the assembly.
Asked why there has only been one nomination of a Northern Ireland representative since 2011 and why Mrs Hale had not taken up her post, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “The difficulty has been Sinn Fein’s unwillingness to cooperate.”
Responding to Doug Beattie’s claim that the DUP were freely able to nominate Brenda Hale to the CRG in 2016, he responded that Sinn Fein do not always use their veto.
Sir Jeffrey said he would contact Brenda Hale to see if she was still getting invitations to attend the CRG and contact the MOD to seek clarity about her attending in future. He confirmed that it is not necessary to be an elected representative to be nominated.
Robert McCartney of Ards veterans charity Beyond the Battlefield, claimed that despite having a seat, no Northern Ireland Office representative has been attending CRG and that it was impossible to see minutes. The NIO had not offered any comment.
A report by the Westminster Defence Committee this week found Northern Ireland veterans were seriously disadvantaged compared to the rest of the UK. It found that veterans in Northern Ireland suffer more serious mental health problems on account of the security history, but that there is much less support from the NHS and charity sector compared to GB.
Mr Beattie added: “Prior to 1998s Belfast Agreement, the security forces stood tall as they became the buffer between the terrorists and the terrorised. Now they have been forced into the shadows for security reasons, taking deep-rooted mental health issues with them, which are not being addressed.”
He acknowledged the strong demand from some veterans for a one-stop centre to help with mental health, as exist in GB, but warned of creating “a white elephant” in terms of who might finance and control it. He also noted a little known service is already operating - the Veterans and Reserves Mental Health Programme based in Thiepval Barracks, Lisburn.
The MLA also said that the effectiveness of 11 councillors from each council as veterans champions had been questioned, but in their defence said they had not been properly resourced or trained.
Mr Beattie noted that Lord Ashcroft said in his second follow up report on The Veterans Transition Review that “the Northern Ireland Executive has used section 75 [Northern Ireland Equality Legislation] as a reason for not doing anything. Even the appointment of a representative to the CRG is supposedly prevented by section 75. This is nonsense.”
The MLA said: “It is a disgrace that Northern Ireland has never had a voice at the CRG and has never fed into the Armed Forces Covenant annual report.”
• Veterans and Reserves Mental Health Programme tel 0800 0326258 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
UDR/RI aftercare: 9042 0145
UDR Ben Fund: 028 9042 0652
Royal Irish Ben Fund: 9042 0629
Veterans UK (MoD pensions/compensation):
The Samaritans: 116123
Lifeline NI 0808 808 8000
Alcoholics Anon: 0800 8177 650
Vets’ Gateway: 0808 802 1212
Combat Stress: 0800 138 1619
Help for Heroes: 01980 844280
RBL: 0808 802 8080
Beyond the Battlefield:
028 91 228 389