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Military Covenant must be adopted fully in Northern Ireland, we owe it to our soldiers

By Nelson McCausland

Published 10/12/2015

Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn

Last week Parliament took the decision to join the international campaign against Islamic State in Syria - action endorsed by the United Nations.

For those who believe in our parliamentary system, the debate that took place, with genuine and impassioned voices both for and against, demonstrated its inherent depth and strength.

Hilary Benn's speech attracted the most attention. The focus upon it quickly became about the internal politics of the Labour Party but this missed the real power of it.

The principles Benn articulated - of compassion, internationalism and anti-fascism - are actually the principles that his leader Jeremy Corbyn purports to hold.

Benn's speech highlighted how Corbyn doesn't truly hold any such principles. They are what Corbyn uses to try and hide his hatred and rejection of Britishness and the broader Western world.

This decision to send service personnel into harm's way must not be the end of this. Syria and Isis need more than military action, and that is why my own party did not rush to endorse military action, but wanted to see what was to be done beyond it.

It should also focus our minds upon what we will provide to those servicemen and women when they return home after after risking their lives implementing the will of parliament.

In the United Kingdom the basis for our Military Covenant is set out as: "The whole nation has a moral obligation to members of the Armed Forces and their families." Yet, as a whole nation, it is not being fulfilled.

According to the Northern Ireland Office, the Military Covenant is not being fully implemented here.

It estimates that seven per cent of it is not being met.

Few in Northern Ireland would take the NIO at its word. The areas in which we are failing our service personnel and veterans include: priority health service treatment for wounded, injured and sick veterans for injuries relating to their service; priority for social housing; provision of IVF; and waiving of domestic rates on unoccupied properties (when living elsewhere in MoD property because of military service).

When issues as central as health and housing aren't delivered, it makes you wonder how the NIO concluded there was only a seven per cent failure rate.

These difficulties are not simply a result of a slow or distant bureaucracy not getting its act together in Northern Ireland. Here, a key barrier is Section 75 and its interpretation.

This is another legacy issue from the Belfast Agreement, which the UUP and PUP supported and the DUP has been trying to fix.

This work achieved progress when Lord Ashcroft's 2014 review of veteran affairs in the UK, commissioned by the Prime Minister, recognised this was the problem and called for Section 75 to be amended.

Some would falsely portray this as an attack on rights and equality. However, there is a clear precedent.

In the US, when they passed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, they made specific provision and protection for veterans.

So, the Government freely admits that there is a failure in our "moral obligation" to our service personnel and veterans in Northern Ireland. The failure to fulfil it is not simply a breach in Northern Ireland's obligation - it is a breach of the obligation upon our "whole nation".

The Prime Minister, the Defence Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have had the solution sitting on their desks for over a year but they have done nothing.

That is why, yesterday, my party colleague Sammy Wilson MP used a 10 Minute Rule Bill to highlight this failure and push for action.

The reasoning for action by the national Government is simple: members of the Royal Air Force, Royal Navy or Army from Northern Ireland face the same risks as other service members - no more, no less.

Therefore, they deserve the same fulfilment of the Military Covenant as service personnel and veterans in Britain - no more, no less.

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