Why we must remember our war living as we pay tribute to our war dead
NI veterans have been abandoned by Westminster. Now the Executive has to step up to the plate, writes Doug Beattie MC
On July 1, 2016, the nation stopped to remember the industrial-scale slaughter that took place on the Somme 100 years ago. Remembering the sacrifices of the 36th (Ulster) Division and our war dead is incredibly important; by reflecting on our past it informs our future. But now, as time marches on, it is just as important remembering our war living.
The Armed Forces Covenant was instigated throughout the United Kingdom in 2011. Its aim: to ensure those who serve or have served in the armed forces are not disadvantaged by that service. It does not call for advantage. Nor should it.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. No member of the service community or a family member should be disadvantaged because they happen to be from here or live here.
Throughout Great Britain huge strides have been made to ensure this aim is met, through housing initiatives, health and the unique educational needs thrown up by military service. Yet here in Northern Ireland we continue to lag far behind the rest.
For some inexplicable reason the authorities here want to deliver the Covenant under the table, as if ashamed of the men and women who have sacrificed so much.
Armed forces' issues, including those affecting veterans, are not devolved, so the issue of veteran welfare lies with the Westminster Government - not Stormont.
However, issues such as housing, education and health are devolved and the Westminster Government cannot get involved in these matters. So the Executive does have a part to play.
These are hurdles we must overcome within our devolved administration to bring a better understanding of veterans' issues.
If the Executive is serious about helping the most vulnerable it must address veterans' needs.
The main sticking-point seems to be the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which finds it hard to deliver services here without direct input from the Executive.
Although five of our 11 councils have signed up to the Armed Forces Community Covenant the MoD has taken more than a year to recognise just two of these five councils on their Covenant website and annual report after ignoring repeated requests.
It still does not have a link to Northern Ireland as a Covenant region and this has the effect of alienating the veterans' community.
If asked, many veterans will tell you the Covenant doesn't apply in Northern Ireland and some believe the £10m Covenant Fund, available yearly, cannot be applied for here.
And they would be wrong on both counts.
Clearly there is a major public relations job to be done and the MoD needs to publicise what it is doing to help veterans and what help is available so that those who could benefit from it the most know what is on offer and where to access it.
Although an Armed Forces Champion has been nominated and placed in all 11 councils, they have no teeth, no resources and no funding.
The Executive still does not input into the Covenant working group - a ridiculous state of affairs given that Northern Ireland has more veterans per head of population than anywhere else in the UK.
The DUP continues to argue that Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act prevents implementation of the Covenant.
However, in 2013 it was made clear by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee - which it sat on - that it does not affect delivery of the Covenant any more here than it does anywhere else in the UK.
It uses Section 75 to mask its inactivity and its inability to understand the problem and provide leadership and solutions.
Of course, there will be those who argue that the ongoing three-year veterans study by Ulster University, funded by Forces in Minds Trust, meets that need. Many others will point to the UDR and Royal Irish Aftercare Service as best practice.
But neither has the capacity to deal with individual bespoke needs at the level required now.
So, as the official Opposition, the Ulster Unionist Party is calling for the Executive to fight to have a veterans' and reserves' mental health programme set up here in Northern Ireland at either Thiepval Barracks or Palace Barracks, similar to the one in England.
The programme should be funded by the Westminster Government - in the same way as it is in England.
This will give veterans a focus for their mental health issues in a safe and secure environment.
It will give them the ability to access military medical documentation they may well have not been used previously, due to the security situation.
Moreover, it will show that the MoD understands the "moral component" that affects veterans here in Northern Ireland.
The Ulster Unionist Party is particularly concerned that, when it comes to looking after the mental health and wellbeing of veterans in Northern Ireland, the resources simply aren't there.
It is not acceptable to send service personnel overseas into conflict zones and not provide adequate aftercare once they return home or are demobilised.
The Ulster Unionist Party is also calling for the Executive to begin the process of engaging with the Covenant working group with clear aims and outcomes.
If the will is there, the Executive can effect a step-change in veteran-related issues here in Northern Ireland.
It is clear our veterans have been abandoned by Westminster and neglected by the Executive.
Remembering our war dead from 100 years ago is vitally important for any society.
But after the wreaths have been laid as a solemn act of remembrance and reflection, veterans are once again left to deal with the aftermath of their service.
Many feel isolated and marginalised as their service is downgraded through time.
The perception remains within the armed forces community here in Northern Ireland that the Covenant doesn't apply to this part of the United Kingdom.
Many have told me they don't expect help or recognition until they join the ranks of the dead.
So, as we lay a wreath to our war dead, it is vitally important we remember and help our war living.
- Doug Beattie MLA was awarded the Military Cross for his tour of duty in Afghanistan in 2006