UUP hails new veterans' unit but Sinn Fein highly critical
The Ulster Unionists have welcomed the establishment of a new Government department to support military veterans.
But Sinn Fein has described the move as "a calculated insult" to victims of State violence, and a victims' group said the Government appeared to have created "a ministry for State impunity".
UUP MLA Andy Allen said the creation of the Office for Veterans' Affairs was long overdue.
Tasked with improving the lives of veterans, it will be run by Johnny Mercer who has been a staunch critic of the Historical Investigations Unit. The prominent Tory backbencher is a former soldier who supported Boris Johnson's leadership campaign. Working jointly with the Ministry of Defence and Cabinet Office, it will oversee veterans' affairs.
Mr Allen, himself a former soldier, said: "The announcement of a new dedicated Office for Veterans' Affairs to support military personnel is a welcome move by the Prime Minister.
"For too long there has been an attitude that military personnel leaving service become the problem of other departments, which has often lead to a sporadic and disjointed service.
"I hope that this office does indeed take the responsibility required to ensure Government and the MoD meet their duty of care to those who serve or have served and their families." Mr Allen continued: "There is no denying many service charities are doing sterling work to support our service personnel, veterans and their families, for which they should be commended.
"They have vast experience and knowledge that should be utilised by the Office for Veterans' Affairs and Government to further improve support services for veterans.
"While the new office is welcome it is, however, imperative that it does not become a token gesture but actively works to ensure the best possible support is provided for those that require it and promotes the positive benefits those leaving service can offer to our workplaces and wider society."
The UUP has written to Paymaster General Oliver Dowden who has been appointed as the minister representing veterans in Cabinet, and to Mr Mercer to invite them here to "hear first-hand from veterans and their families to help better shape support for Northern Ireland veterans".
Sinn Fein Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy criticised the move, saying: "The creation of this new office will be viewed by many campaigners and victims as a tactic for the British Government to continue to obstruct efforts to address the legacy of the conflict and create another smokescreen to hide the role it played.
"It is further evidence that this British Government's policy is aimed at giving current and former British soldiers immunity from prosecution.
"Suggestions of vexatious prosecution are total nonsense. Any attempts to create a hierarchy of victims by protecting perpetrators of murders and other serious crime committed by British State forces are totally unacceptable".
Relatives for Justice said: "This British Government will need to explain if they have, as it appears, created a ministry for State impunity.
"If so they cannot be a bona fide co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement or a signatory to the Stormont House Agreement or go to the UN and ECHR with any credibility."
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new department would "take responsibility for the full gamut of veterans' civilian lives". That includes health, education and employment.
Mr Mercer said: "For the first time in its history, the UK Government will have an Office for Veterans' Affairs to ensure that when our Armed Forces personnel leave service, they are looked after in the manner that they deserve.
"I am delighted with this role, and am resolutely determined to reset this country's relationship with her veterans."