On #ArmedForcesDay remember those relegated to 2nd class citizens by the Armed Forces Covenant

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.

Chaos of war? Or dereliction of duty by the MOD?

War is a dirty, ugly profession.

Yet we would be foolish to think men will not continue to fight and die in countries many miles beyond their own often for reasons, and because of reasons, their families back at home might not be able to comprehend or come to terms with when their loved ones succumb in battle.

So what of the current fight the MOD has on its hands as it faces yet another struggle in the courts over the standard of equipment issued to troops during the Iraq war? Is the criticism of relatives justified? Did soldiers know that when they went to war they would go with the very minimum of kit and be expected to get on with the job regardless? Is the situation in the 20th Century any different to what it was in the hundreds of years prior? Should it be different?

The argument levelled by Robert Weir QC representing some of those bringing claims is as such:

“The state is under a positive obligation to take all reasonable measures to protect the lives of its soldiers. In the context of activities that form part of soldiers’ ordinary duties, albeit that these may involve dangerous activities, that positive obligation requires the state to adopt and implement regulations and systems to mitigate the relevant risk to life, including adequate equipment and training.”

On the face of it there is nothing to disagree with in these statements. If war is dirty and ugly then it is also unpredictable. What’s more, the consequences of any sort of misjudgement – whether made in the cushy offices of the MOD or in the heat of battle – can and do result in death and injury.

My experience is that most troops regard the vagaries of waging war an occupational hazard.

As my old commanding officer Tim Collins would say, “Go to war with what’s in your pockets. The rest will follow.” And that’s exactly what my colleagues and I did when we took part in the 2003 invasion of Saddam’s nation. It could well be argued there was not enough kit to go around and that was a failing of the MOD logistical plan but these things happen and yes they do cost lives but it is something servicemen know all too well and just get on with it. Historically it has come with the territory. Again, the real question is should they just get on with it?

It is worth looking at the emotive issue of the Snatch Land Rover (which features in one of the compensation claims) a vehicle I used have used many times over 30 years of – ongoing – service. Soldiers tended to hate it, and not just because it was lightly armoured. But also because it was enclosed, had poor visibility and did not have the ability to mount crew-served weapons therefore being of little use as a firing platform.

Soldiers would rather have the much lighter, totally un-armoured WMIK Land Rover that addressed all the failings of the Snatch except its shortage of ballistic protection. But in war, mobility is often a key part of staying safe and the balance between physical protection and speed and agility is something the MOD has had to try and address over the last ten years of bitter fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Snatch Land Rover

But you shouldn’t always blame the equipment. Part of the problem with the Snatch was how it was deployed, more than once in unsuitable circumstances. This is a failure of command, down to inexperience and difficult operational situations.

(If you really want a woeful vehicle ever to be deployed into an operational theatre then you need look no further that the Vector, but that is a different and lesser-known story and perhaps the subject of another blog.)

WMIK Land Rover after IED strike

There is no universal view amongst soldiers on what constitutes best practice. I did not envy those who crossed the border into Iraq in 2003 inside a 60-tonne Challenger 2 Main Battle Tank, essentially cooped up in a bullet magnet, susceptible to both mine strikes and artillery fire, as well as the attentions of the enemy’s main battle tanks.

In contrast my regiment, the Royal Irish, entered the conflict in 4-tonne DAF cargo trucks, 18 men squeezed into each open-topped vehicle travelling no quicker than 30 miles per hour.  Vulnerable? Bloody right we were, but we got on with it because that’s what was on hand and because, we as infantrymen, had a job to do and by choice non of us wanted to be entombed in metal. Ig we had we would have joined the cavalry or the tank Regiment.

As it was every man in our unit had his body armour. We knew this because the commanding officer and his RSM, me, were the last to receive theirs. This was not a procedure prescribed by the MOD, it’s simply a matter of leadership.

Had more and better equipment been available then the CO would have made sure everyone had it, but in truth it was not and we got on with the job – you can see the pattern: ‘Get on with the job, known risks, availability’.  The Army works on a simple premise in war, ‘mission first’ – like it or not that is what you sign up for and if you aren’t up for it then choose a different profession.

In the summer of 2008 in the Upper Gereskh Valley I fought a desperate battle along with just ten other British soldiers to hold a small patrol base named Attal. We were lightly equipped, far from any support and fought protracted battles on a daily basis. The attrition took its toll on my men mentally and physically.

Burdened down with heavy personal protection equipment in 40 degree heat, men got tired, took the less difficult route, did not, could not, apply the skill taught them due to sheer exhaustion.  They had lost mobility due to ‘protection’ and that eventually cost the life of one of those with me.

Leopard 2 MBT – Mobility Kill

There are many who will say that this heavy personal protective equipment has saved lives and they would be right: up to a point. We don’t know how many men would not have stepped on the IED that killed or maimed them if they had not been so bloody tired.

Physical, all-enveloping protection is not everything as the death of a Danish soldier while travelling inside a Leopard 2
main battle tank during our time at Attal proves. Confronted with a bigger vehicle to destroy, the enemy will simply make a bigger bomb. A terrible incident in March when six British soldiers were killed after their Warrior armoured fighting vehicle was targeted by a Taliban roadside bomb simply reinforces the point.

All this leads to at least one legitimate complaint about the methods used to issue equipment to our armed forces. In a world of scarce resource the best stuff will always go to those some regard as the ‘best’ soldiers, the elite regiments. They do have access to very lightweight ballistic protective kit out there that better strikes the balance between the competing priorities of mobility and protection. Yet why are these people the pampered few? Better paid, better equipped than the rest of the British Army (and Navy).

Of course, it comes down to a single thing. Cost.

If the MOD looses these cases in the courts I wonder whether the families of those killed in the Falklands will then seek compensation for their loved ones who did not have ballistic protection of any kind? Or will the long forgotten Ulster Defence Regiment who lost 197 soldiers in a conflict many choose to forget be entitled to sue the MOD?

I think it is right and proper that equipment concerns are raised and where someone is culpable then legal action should be taken against them. But the bar for prosecution should be set very high indeed. To blame a lack of equipment when the equipment was not available or its purpose misunderstood by those in command is plainly wrong.

Faced with a public backlash to better protect its troops the MOD might be tempted to pile yet more protective kit onto the soldier. But while this might cover the arses of those in Whitehall, ironically it could leave men and women on the front line less able to defend themselves. Bogged down in the mud they might die because of having too much kit, not too little.

It is sobering to look back at the evidence from D-Day that took place 68 years ago this month. The stories are legion of how over-burdened soldiers either drowned as they disembarked the landing crafts which carried them towards the Normandy beaches or were unable to make fast enough progress across the sand allowing the Germans to pick them off.

Now, as then, war is an unpredictable business. Lawyers must not make it sound otherwise.


The manpower of the British army is to be reduced to its lowest figure in over 200 years, yet the MOD hopes to retain its capabilities and its tempo of operations. That in itself is a questionable and ambitious goal given the volatile nature of the world today. In total over 21,000 British soldiers will go, men and women from the Midlands and Home Counties, Scots regiments, historic English regiments – some of the oldest infantry regiments in the British Army. But the fate of the Gurkhas is perhaps the most thorny and provocative issue. These men (there are no women though this is set to change) have served in the British Army for the last two centuries, have won 13 Victoria Crosses and are rightly viewed as a model of loyalty; an institution within an institution. Only two years ago another British institution allied herself with these Nepalese warriors. The aim of the actress Joanne Lumley was to secure rights for the Gurkhas commensurate with those awarded to all other British soldiers: equal pensions and service rights, and the ability to settle in the UK once their duty was done.

It was a laudable, high profile campaign, which carried the public with it and resulted in total victory for Ms Lumley. Or did it? In fact it might well have actually weakened the argument for retaining so many members of the Brigade of Ghurkhas. The first thing to understand, is that Gurkhas are not unique to the British Army. They also serve – in far larger numbers – in the Indian Army.

Although the first Gurkhas regiments were raised in 1815 to later serve in the British Indian Army their employment, which is essentially as mercenaries, was agreed in a tri-country pact between Nepal, India and the UK in 1947. The pact laid out their terms of service and enshrined the fundamental principle that at the end of their military careers they would go back to Nepal bringing their riches with them. On their return they were viewed as the wealthy and privileged, standing out from the majority of the population in terms of prosperity, education and social standing.

Now the contract has been rewritten and while the rights extended to Gurkhas is essentially identical to home grown British soldiers their flexibility is not. The cost has gone up. The benefit has not. In an era where every penny counts this has made them more vulnerable to cuts.

Each man who joins the Gurkhas goes through a rigorous selection process in Nepal (paid for by the UK military). The successful are then transported to the UK (paid for by the UK military) undergo military training which includes English lessons (paid for by the UK military). After five years they are entitled to what is known as long leave, six months at home in Nepal, during which time they are again supported by the Ministry of Defence (though this too is set to change). Of course the MOD does not have its own money. It spends taxpayers’ money, our money.

So what do we get in return? Obedience and bravery, unquestionably. The fighting record of the Gurkhas is second to none. And yet in modern times soldiering has not been limited to warfare in far-flung places. And this is where the Gurkhas limitations are revealed, for what they don’t possess is utility.

The Northern Ireland conflict dragged on for 30 years yet not one Gurkha unit served on what was known as Op Banner. Nor did they turn out to help with the fire strike in 2002 that drew in 18,000 military personnel. And they were also absent from the Foot and Mouth disease frontline. In fact they have not and never will help with any task that supports the UK civil power. Why? Because the memorandum of understanding with Nepal prohibits it. Simply put, if the Gurkhas were the last troops on the island when a repeat of something like last summer’s riots broke out they would not deploy to restore order. To that end they have far less flexibility than your average soldier.

What the Gurkhas do possess is the ability to recruit and recruit quickly.  Having reduced the size of the military to an all time low, by retaining the brigade of Gurkhas we retain the ability to enlarge the British army quickly if the need arises.  But retaining these men of honour means that other men of honour, men from the UK will find themselves out of a job.

Simply put I am a Northern Irish soldier, I once belonged to the largest regiment in the British Army, I now belong to the smallest.  There are more Gurkhas serving in the British army now than there are Irishmen.  In total Irish-born servicemen have won 188 VCs (of 1355 awarded) yet we took our reductions as every other corner of the UK took theirs.  It is time to dry our eyes and look at the issue with a clear head. 

If the Gurkha’s really want equality then their usefulness should be subjected to the same objective scrutiny lavished on other regiments and corps. In the interests of fairness, surely Miss Lumley could not disagree with that?


Things were different in my day“, say the old soldiers and they would be right. For while the veterans of the Falklands share the same courage and tenacity as those who have come in the thirty years since, there are a million things that would be unrecognisable to the infantrymen who shed blood, sweat and tears on Tumbledown, Goose Green and Wireless Ridge.

Yet it is what happened on those rocky outcrops in the southern Atlantic that lead to much of what has changed, not all of it for the better. Even as the UK’s armed forces – and the nation with them – celebrated the raising once more of the Union Flag over Port Stanley it was clear to many senior military figures that victory had been secured despite significant operational and technical weaknesses: hence the review which took place in the immediate aftermath of the conflict.

It is true to say life would never be the same again for the ‘poor bloody infantry‘.

An early casualty of the review was the SLR, a rifle that had been in service for the best part of 35 years. The rifle was heavy, inaccurate, had no automatic capability and couldn’t utilise the NATO standard ammunition of the time. The SLR was replaced by the SA80, which, though itself was not immune to problems, is now a seriously good weapon to go into battle with.

The old DMS boots – complete with cloth ankle wraps known as putties – were also put out to pasture in an attempt to finally eradicate immersion foot (or to give it its more common name, trench foot) a miserable affliction suffered by generations of soldiers over hundreds of years.

For the infantryman it seemed as if everything was going in the right direction. The transformation of mechanised infantry to armoured infantry with the introduction of the Warrior IFV and the change from British standard equipment to NATO standard both had positive effects and by the end of the 1980s the tri-services were regarded as amongst the best in the world, a product of their military successes and increasingly good equipment.

But as the last decade of the 20th Century opened soldiers started to suffer a crisis of confidence. No longer was their mission simply to ‘close with and kill the enemy‘. ‘Our boys‘ were increasingly being parachuted into volatile and complicated intra-national conflicts, not to wage war but to keep the peace. Despite valiant efforts from all concerned it was often a sure-fire way of generating confusion, engendering frustration and fostering a sense of impotence. Across the Balkans there was more than one British soldier who felt guilt in the face of ethnic atrocities, not because of what they had done to help, but what they weren’t allowed to do.

Yet for your average serviceman there would be little time to dwell on these perceived failings. Early in the new millennium everything changed again with the attack on the Twin Towers. The War on Terror quickly followed and if things weren’t busy enough, in 2003 we decided to invade Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein.

What defined these conflicts as much as anything was the scrutiny they received amongst the general public? Armchair generals came into their own. Sitting back in their seats they were bombarded with a fusillade of rolling news, comment and uncensored footage appearing on outlets such as Live Leak. The military struggled to stem the flow with seemingly as much time being spent on the media plan as the battle plan. One consequence of the unrelenting spotlight and the horrors it too often portrayed was a growing sense of risk aversion amongst the political class. Soldiers have always known that in war ‘shit happens‘, only now that shit is on view to one and all and not everyone is comfortable with what they see.

One of the other things the unblinking eye of the camera also picked up was the sheer number of skills your ‘ordinary‘ soldier now needed to function adequately in the face of the enemy.

More than cannon fodder, troops might better be described as technicians, familiar as they are with 6 to 8 weapons systems and numerous types of signals equipment including satellite communications. They are also trained to near-paramedic standard in field medicine and can drive various complicated vehicles. On top of that they need to be master tacticians, great diplomats and able to display excellent cultural sensitivity, not just to the population of the nation they are campaigning in, but also to the cohorts of international forces they will invariably now be fighting alongside.

They do all of this encumbered by body armour akin to the protection a knight of the fifteen hundreds might wear. Sacrificing mobility as a method of force protection with cumbersome equipment, which was far easier for politicians to explain to a nervous public.

Yet for all the advances over the past three decades there are some things which would be depressingly familiar to the infantryman of the 1980s, most of them welfare related.

In some cases, rather than mark time, things have taken a step backward. The introduction of Pay as You Dine a simple example. If nothing else the Falklands veteran could be sure of getting three square meals a day, essential for the rigorous travails regularly endured. In 2012 there is many a young soldier who is foregoing meals either because they have failed to budget correctly and have no cash, or else consciously decide to spend their earnings on things other than sustenance. It could easily be argued that soldiers have no more right to a free lunch than anyone else yet if we expect our soldiers risk their lives at the whim of politicians the least wean do is ensure they are adequately prepared for the hardships and dangers they must face.

Throw in sub-standard accommodation, an issue the MOD are making massive efforts to address, and it is easy to see why some men actually relish the prospect of going on operation because they know that the housing and the grub will both be as least as good as back home and more importantly it will free. On top of this an extra ‘battle bounty’ or ‘operational allowance’ allows him to save for things he couldn’t normally afford.

Is this the way we should be encouraging our men to fight: through financial inducements? When I joined the army, one month before the start of the Falklands War, I knew my pay would be poor, conditions harsh and I might die cold and lonely in a country I knew little about.  But in the good old days it was all about the moral component, a reason to fight, a country and people worth fighting for. Today it seems money is the motivation. And that is something no one who served in the Falklands would regard as progress.