When the Prime Minister announced that the Armed Forces Covenant was to become a legal provision it was a much applauded step. The headline was simple and achievable:
“The Government recognises the need to do more to ensure our Armed Forces, veterans and their families have the support they need and are treated with the dignity they deserve. The Armed Forces Covenant, published today, sets the tone for Government policy aimed at improving the support available for the Armed Forces Community.”
The then-Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox said:
“We believe that a sensible way forward, that will give the right kind of legal basis to the Armed Forces Covenant for the first time in our history, is to enshrine the principles in law, provide a regular review of the policies that will make them a reality, ensure that Parliament has a chance to scrutinise this review through the annual report, and that the report itself is widely informed, consultative and transparent.
“Our understanding of the Covenant will change over time, as will the way in which Government and society meet it. The framework we have set out today provides the flexibility we need so that not only the Government but all of society can fully pay the enormous debt they owe our Armed Forces, their families and our veterans.”
Thanks to the hard work of the Royal British Legion, the MOD et al the promises encompassed in Liam Fox’s statement have been delivered to many people; but unfortunately not to all.
In England, Scotland and Wales members of the forces ‘family’ are reaping the benefits of the Armed Forces Covenant as well as the associated community covenant which sees local-level committees concentrating on the particular problems they face including the lack of appropriate housing for service leavers, education and job opportunities as well as health which, while not unique to them, are more prevalent than in society overall.
The aim of the Community Covenant Grant Scheme is to financially support projects, at the local level, which strengthen the ties or the mutual understanding between members of the Armed Forces Community and the wider community in which they live.
But as we mark another important Armed Forces Day it is worth asking whether we are really applying the same rule for all members of the service community or just in areas where it is convenient to do so?
For though the covenant has been enshrined in law by the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, as well as in Westminster, the story in Northern Ireland is somewhat different.
For here the Covenant is not properly recognised and has not be adopted by the Stormont Assembly. The practical problems of delivering an adequate Armed Forces Covenant to the 75,000 service personnel, veterans and their families residing in the country are swept under the carpet, sidelined as apparently too difficult for any politician either here or in London to tackle. The Royal British Legion does what it can but their day is the sun in respect to the Covenant is over; it is now government institutions which must drive it forward.
For those who fought the awful conflict on the island – inadequately referred to as The Troubles – there is a feeling that they are neither supported nor wanted; their only crime to have served selflessly in an appalling situation, the formal conclusion of which saw no one stepping forward to offer thanks on behalf of a grateful nation. Not that everything is peace and quiet even today. Some 14 years after the Good Friday Agreement men like me continue to check under their cars before they drive to work or switch off their kitchen light before they enter at night so as not to make themselves a target for dissident republicans.
Late nineteenth and early twentieth century theatres of war in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan have only swelled the numbers of those from all sides of the Irish community and so-called sectarian divide who need real help to come to terms with disability, be it mental or physical.
Fundamental to the difficulties faced in Northern Ireland are the residual impacts of something that was close to civil war. Key amongst them, the isolation many service people and their loved ones endure. Trying to reintegrate into a society where being a soldier is something you barely acknowledge, let alone express with pride, has a detrimental effect on your own self-worth after many years service.
For all the recent smiles at Stormont when Martin met Liz there remains a strained security situation and a tribal culture that has yet to completely give way to harmonious co-existence.
The tensions are not just felt by soldiers of Irish extraction: The Rifles currently stationed at Ballykilner on the beautiful County Down coast or the Mercians encamped in Holywood, Belfast, find themselves in an alien world. It is not a wild exaggeration to say that some of wives and children of these British troops will rarely if ever leave the confines of the bases.
A working covenant in Northern Ireland would help address this dreadful situation by addressing the unique situation Northern Ireland finds itself in. But there is no such thing. For the same tensions that cleave Northern Irish society, and are still felt by those associated with the military, are also present in the body which runs the country.
The present assembly government works on power sharing which effectively allows any political group to veto any controversial proposals. If one side does not want to implement – indeed, even talk about – something the other suggests then they have the right to dismiss it. And that is what has happened with the Armed Forces Covenant.
So how to break the deadlock? Well this is a party political question and all sides of the assembly are looking at ways of increasing their kudos with the electorate. As yet none have found a way to break the impasse, Westminster has little appetite for the problem and the Royal British Legion are happily leaving the whole issue to someone. And who can blame them?
Yet, as a simple soldier, a man from the community working with and for the community, the answer is very simple. It only requires the same moral courage as the Queen demonstrated when she shook hands with a former IRA commander or a similar courage exhibited by Martin Guinness who accepted the proffered magisterial hand despite the negative symbolism many of those on the Republican side associate with it. This last statement is not an easy thing for me to say but as a soldier I have learned to understand my enemy better than most.
So what am I really suggesting in this blog? Well to reduce to it’s very bare bones I am saying the service community in Northern Ireland, be they indigenous or from Great Britain, all fight and die for Queen and Country the same way as soldiers from England, Scotland and Wales. Yet they do not receive the same recognition, the same funding, the same acknowledgment of the difficulties they face on a day-to-day basis.
In an ideal world national politicians should have the moral courage to fight for what is right and get the covenant put into action as it was intended in all corners of the UK, or else amend it to meet the special power-sharing scenario we have in Northern Ireland. Until that happens paralysis will reign, condemning soldiers, sailors and airmen who fought and still fight for their country to remain second-class citizens.