Veteran behind protest group hails 'great victory' over Military Covenant
A former soldier behind the campaign group Justice For Veterans UK has declared the full implementation of the Military Covenant in Northern Ireland a "great victory" - but the next battle is to stop "the witch-hunt on veterans".
Anto Wickham, a former Royal Irish Regiment soldier from Craigavon who is now a security expert in Afghanistan, says he was delighted that the DUP secured the deal with the Conservative Party to ensure that veterans in Northern Ireland receive the same benefits as veterans in the rest of the UK.
The Military Covenant is an undertaking that "the whole nation has a moral obligation to the members of the Armed Forces and their families".
Mr Wickham (51) was behind marches across Northern Ireland in protest against ongoing "vindictive" criminal investigations involving former soldiers, including those accused over the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972.
He congratulated all those who came out onto the streets to support them, and claimed: "We have done it, justice has been done.
"We were a big part of this. Congratulations to all veterans that marched and supported our group Justice For Veterans UK.
"As part of the deal, the Military Covenant will be implemented in full in Northern Ireland, meaning more focus on the treatment of military veterans.
"I would say to all veterans in Northern Ireland, we have done it! I thank every veteran who has showed their support for our group, who came out to march with us around the country and who brought this cause to the people and to the heart of the UK Government in Westminster.
"I have always stated that the full implementation of the Military Covenant was a political issue that required political representation.
"We made the right call and we are part of what made this deal happen.
"So you all should be so proud, and it was my honour to march with you all as we carried our marches for justice to the country. Veterans were being fed to the wolves, the very veterans that stood up to the IRA. Well, this week, justice was done."
However, Mr Wickham said that the battle was not yet over, and that the group will continue to fight for an end to what he calls a "witch-hunt" against veterans.
Mr Wickham said: "This was just one battle, now the next one takes over and that is to stop the witch-hunt on veterans while IRA men run about laughing at the justice system with their letters of comfort.
"If there is no level playing field, we will make sure those letters will have no more comfort for them and they will face justice.
"Let's look at the real enemy, the people that carried out the murders of the innocent, that planted bombs in our cities and towns, that hid in the shadows wearing balaclavas and carrying guns waiting to murder."
As the DUP-Tory deal was announced on Monday, it was confirmed that a former soldier is to stand trial on a charge arising from the death of a vulnerable man shot dead by the Army over four decades ago.
Cornwall resident Dennis Hutchings will be tried for the killing of 27-year old John-Pat Cunningham in Benburb in June 1974.