In the rest of the United Kingdom, a 'military covenant' protects serving and former members of the armed forces from being disadvantaged because of their service. Unfortunately the covenant does not apply in Northern Ireland, where ex-soldiers often struggle to find social housing or employment as a result.
If the Executive had the will, this could probably be changed quite quickly. Unfortunately Sinn Féin exercises an effective veto in the Assembly. Because of that party’s insistence on demonising our armed forces, any legislation at Stormont is unlikely to succeed, for the time being.
The Conservative peer, Lord Ashcroft, recently considered alternative options as part of his review into how former military personnel assimilate back into civilian life. He recommended that part of the Northern Ireland Act, which was introduced after the Good Friday Agreement, should be changed at Westminster, in order to allow the covenant to operate in Northern Ireland.
Section 75 of the act currently makes it an offence to discriminate against someone, based on factors like religion, race, age or disability. Ironically the clause has been used to discriminate against former servicemen, who cannot apply for social housing when they are in the military, because of security reasons, and find themselves homeless and bottom of the list, when they leave the armed forces.
Lord Ashcroft suggests that this clause could be altered to allow ex-servicemen to receive the ‘recognition and provision they deserve’.
As a serving soldier who runs a veterans charity in Northern Ireland, I’ve seen at first hand the difficulties which many of my former colleagues face. After serving their country bravely and putting their lives and bodies on the line, they come home to discrimination, because of complications with getting on housing waiting lists and other issues.
I’m enormously encouraged that Lord Ashcroft has identified this problem in his report and made a recommendation to solve it. I’ll be meeting with Conservative Party colleagues at Westminster and elsewhere to discuss how his report can be taken forward. It’s important to keep up the momentum, so that veterans can make the easiest possible transition to civilian life.
Unfortunately, the military covenant is yet another issue that the parties at the Assembly have proved unable to tackle. I’ll be campaigning to make sure that former members of the armed forces don’t continue to suffer because of failing politicians at Stormont.