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Army aid row is typical of Northern Ireland, claims ex-colonel Tim Collins

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Former colonel Tim Collins

Former colonel Tim Collins

Former colonel Tim Collins

Politicians are "playing with people's lives" by arguing over enlisting the military to help deal with the Covid-19 emergency, a former senior Army officer has said.

Tim Collins claimed lives, jobs and health play second fiddle to politics, and said the situation was "typical" of Northern Ireland.

The ex-colonel and author, who fought in the Iraq War, was speaking after formal requests to the Army for assistance, made by Health Minister Robin Swann, sparked a political row.

Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill criticised Mr Swann for making the decision "unilaterally".

Mr Collins advised Mrs O'Neill to "get out of the way" if she was not helping. He described the row as "typical Northern Ireland", adding: "It is Northern Ireland politicians playing politics with people's lives."

Last week Mr Swann made formal requests for military aid to the civil authorities (MACA) to help distribute equipment and plan for a Nightingale hospital on the site of the former Maze prison. He earlier stated his intention to go to the Executive prior to making a decision.

"I believe the Army's skills and logistical expertise could assist with the redistribution of essential life-saving equipment across Northern Ireland to ensure that all hospitals have the materials and resources required to fully enact their surge plans," Mr Swann said.

A spokesperson for the minister said: "The Health Minister publicly stated his intention to make a request for military assistance on Friday, April 3. That request was submitted and both the First and deputy First Ministers were informed of the decision."

But Mrs O'Neill said the minister acted "unilaterally and without consultation with Executive colleagues" when he requested assistance from the Army.

Mrs O'Neill - who wants to meet the Health Minister, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis, Tanaiste Simon Coveney and the PSNI to discuss the issue - added: "Sinn Fein has made it clear we will not rule out any measure necessary to save lives, protect the public and tackle the spread of coronavirus.

"However, no proposal to use British military personnel in the north for roles normally performed by civilians has come before the Executive."

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Michelle O’Neill

Michelle O’Neill

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Michelle O’Neill

Mrs O'Neill said the Department of Health had hired a local civilian contractor "to scope out building a HSC-led civilian field hospital".

She added: "The Health Minister has a responsibility to exhaust all options, including the use of other blue light public services and civilian contractors, to ensure ventilators and life-saving equipment are moved swiftly to where they are needed most."

On April 3, Mr Swann said: "I'll probably put forward a MACA request to the Executive office at the start of next week to make sure that process is in place, because I can't afford to do anything that puts anybody's life at risk."

Mr Collins said: "Any army, not just the British Army... is likely to be trained in nuclear, biological and chemical (warfare), and the army of the land is. They have the logistics, the trucks, other equipment, and young fit men and women who can do the job.

"Only in Northern Ireland, out of anywhere in the world, would you have anyone thinking twice. It is politics, people's lives, people's jobs, healthcare, everything takes second place to politics.

Asked specifically about Sinn Fein's position, Mr Collins said: "We have a saying in the Army - if you are not helping, get out of the way."

He added: "In any country in the world getting capable, effective and ready assistance by an organisation equipped and trained to deal with this crisis in order to save lives would be an absolute no brainer... except in Northern Ireland. Saving lives is of course second to sectarian point scoring.

"When this is over people need to look back at their politicians and remember what their priorities were when lives were at risk ­- and it was not the lives and livelihood of the unfortunate folk of Northern Ireland."

Finance Minister Conor Murphy on April 3 said Sinn Fein would consider a request for military assistance if it was put before the Executive.

"We are about saving lives and that's the number one priority, we're not about politics in this game at this time - all rules are out the window," he said.

"We are about saving lives and protecting the community so any assistance we can get from anywhere if that's what it lends itself towards then we will absolutely consider that, that's our priority."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood tweeted that "15 people died of coronavirus overnight in the North. I'll support anything that gets PPE and ventilators to where it needs to go. Let's stop playing politics and do whatever it takes to save lives."

Justice Minister Naomi Long said Mr Swann has her full support, and the Alliance Party's, "for taking extraordinary measures to try to save people's lives".

Former DUP Health Minister Edwin Poots said it is Mr Swann's job to keep the number of deaths as low as possible, and it is the role of the Executive ministers to assist him.

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Edwin Poots

Edwin Poots

Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press E

Edwin Poots

He added: "I don't care if the British Army bring their skills to creating an emergency hospital, every person whose life is saved in it ought to be glad of the help.

"For example, whenever the order for PPE was made with the Irish Government, which didn't come to fruition, I had no issue with that because we needed it.

"I have no issue with bringing in the British Army and I don't believe that anyone else should either."

First Minister Arlene Foster said she fully supports the Army being used.

People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll does not support any proposals that give the Army "a coordinating or security role to deal with the Covid-19 crisis".

He said: "Both the Tory Government and the Executive's approach to the Covid-19 pandemic has been shambolic from the beginning and this latest proposal to bring in the British Army is further evidence of this.

"We are concerned about how this latest announcement may open the door to a security or military-led approach to deal with a health pandemic."

Belfast Telegraph