3 Barriers to implementation in Northern
11. We heard from a number of witnesses that the
political and legal situation in Northern Ireland meant the Armed
Forces Covenant had not been able to be implemented there in the
same way as throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The two
main issues raised by witnesses were the possibility that the
equality framework in Northern Ireland was in conflict with giving
special consideration to the Armed Forces Community, and that
certain members of the Northern Ireland Executive were not necessarily
sympathetic to the principles or implementation of the Armed Forces
Covenant. The Royal British Legion's written memorandum made the
point that the historical and legislative backdrop in Northern
Ireland created a different situation in relation to implementing
the Armed Forces Covenant.
This position was supported by the MoD:
The delivery of the Armed Forces Covenant in
Northern Ireland requires a different approach from the rest of
the United Kingdom [...] It is important that the unique security,
legislative and political context in Northern Ireland is considered
and that appropriate governance mechanisms are in place to ensure
that support is delivered effectively. The existing network in
support of the Covenant in Northern Ireland is working well and,
while there is always scope for further improvements, the ends
articulated in the Covenant are being increasingly met.
12. We accept that the different political and
legal situation in Northern Ireland, compared to Great Britain,
makes issues relating to the Armed Forces delicate and potentially
contentious. However, this should not mean that the Armed Forces
Community in Northern Ireland should be disadvantaged either compared
with other groups there, or when compared to that community elsewhere
in the UK, beyond that variation which would be expected under
13. A number of witnesses raised concerns that certain
equality legislation in Northern Ireland had been cited as a barrier
to implementation of aspects of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern
Ireland, but the
evidence we received both from equality organisations in Northern
Ireland and HM Government was that this did not, in fact, represent
a significant issue.
The principle that the Armed Forces Community should not be disadvantaged
as a result of military service was particularly noted by many
as entirely in keeping with the equality framework in Northern
Ireland. Nevertheless, the first Annual Report on the Armed Forces
Covenant did state in its introduction that in Northern Ireland
"the suggestion that the Covenant could provide preferential
access to cross-government services for serving and former members
of the Armed Forces could be seen as running counter to their
strict equalities legislation."
14. One particular piece of legislation cited by
witnesses as being a potential barrier to implementation of the
Covenant was section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, which
places statutory duties on public authorities in Northern Ireland
(1) A public authority shall in carrying out
its functions relating to Northern Ireland have due regard to
the need to promote equality of opportunity
(a) between persons of different religious belief,
political opinion, racial group, age, marital status or sexual
(b) between men and women generally;
(c) between persons with a disability and persons
(d) between persons with dependants and persons
In addition, without prejudice to this obligation,
Public Authorities are also required to have regard to the desirability
of promoting good relations between persons of different religious
belief, political opinion, and racial group.
15. Witnesses, such as the Regimental Association
of the Royal Irish Regiment, argued that section 75 needed to
be amended to enable the full implementation of the Armed Forces
Covenant in Northern Ireland.
When questioned on whether it was necessary for section 75 to
be amended, the Minister for Defence Personnel, Welfare and Veterans
The Government regards Section 75 as a key part
of implementing the Good Friday Agreement. We are not intending
to seek to amend that. However, in that it essentially argues
for equality of treatment, it is worth remembering that the two
key principles of the Armed Forces Covenant include firstly the
principle of no discrimination against members of the armed forces
family, and by that we mean serving members of the armed forces,
their families and veterans. In that Section 75 is a piece of
equalities legislation and that the first key principle of the
Covenant is no discrimination, we do not necessarily see any opposition
However, he did acknowledge that the situation was
more complicated in relation to the second principle of the Covenant,
which said that special consideration was appropriate in some
16. The MoD said they had taken legal advice on the
question of section 75 being in conflict with the Armed Forces
Covenant, and that it did not create a barrier to the sorts of
things the MoD is trying to do.
Furthermore, Mr Francois said that where there were practical
difficulties because of section 75:
We have sought to try to find practical ways
of still delivering support to the armed forces family, via the
Armed Forces Covenant at a working level that still assesses their
needs and delivers the spirit of the Covenant.
The Northern Ireland Executive Minister, Edwin Poots
MLA, explained that, if there was a desire to treat Army personnel
better than other groups, it would pose a problem under section
75. He took the view
that "no one is supposed to be treated better, and indeed,
no one is supposed to be treated worse. Army personnel will not
then be treated any worse than anybody else." However, Mr
Poots did say that he was willing to take further advice on this
17. We heard from Mr Poots that section 75 required
public authorities "to have regard to" the need to promote
equality between certain groups, but that it "does not mean
that you cannot do certain things".
This was a view supported by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission,
which said that section 75 did not "dictate, mandate or prohibit
any particular policy provision or policy on the part of any public
Mr Poots told us that, potentially, the strict definition that
was being used to prevent any preferential treatment to the Armed
Forces Community could be tested at some point to see if that
was the right definition.
The Committee on the Administration of Justice also gave evidence
that section 75 was mostly a "policy appraisal tool",
requiring public authorities to conduct impact assessments of
18. Speaking about the possibility of conflict between
the Armed Forces Covenant and the equality framework in Northern
Ireland, Daniel Holder from the Committee on the Administration
of Justice told us:
We do not think there is any real major conflict
between dealing appropriately with the welfare, housing and health
needs of service personnel with the current equalities framework,
including most of the types of measures that would be envisaged
under applying this particular Covenant.
He went on to say that he would be concerned if there
was a move away from making decisions about the provision of public
services on some basis other than "objective need".
The possibility of having specific measures in place to support
the needs of certain groups would not conflict with the legal
framework, because this deals with objective needs, rather than
giving preferential treatment. An example given was that of health
trusts funding women's groups because those groups had easily
identified objective needs, and so there was no conflict with
section 75. Brian
Gormally, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice,
also made the point that equality legislation in Northern Ireland
was no stricter than in Great Britain.
19. We were also told that if there was a case of
a policy giving preferential treatment to the Armed Forces Community
in Northern Ireland, although it was possible this might be flagged
up during a section 75 policy appraisal, it would be more likely
to be challenged under general equalities legislation.
One point raised was that the Armed Forces Community was not a
protected group under section 75 or under other equality legislation
that applies in Northern Ireland.
20. The Equality Commission for Northern Ireland
told us that there was no conflict between section 75 and the
principle that those who have served in the Armed Forces and their
families should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens.
Evelyn Collins, the Commission's Chief Executive, said that "it
is only when the potential for preferential treatment comes into
play for members of the Armed Forces that an issue about indirect
discrimination may arise."
She also explained that the Equality Commission had started discussion
with Northern Ireland departments to explain that their view was
that "section 75 is not a barrier to the introduction or
implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant."
21. In our session with the Minister of State for
Northern Ireland, he told us that he had met with party leaderships
in Northern Ireland to discuss section 75:
To be fair, some of the political parties have
come to me and said they were concerned about, for instance, Section
75, and whether that was causing problems. I have been able to
discuss with both of those party leaderships that actually Section
75 is not causing problems, and they have accepted that now.
He went on to confirm that section 75 "is not
a hindrance for the Covenant, and that is very important."
He also confirmed that "They [the Armed Forces Community]
should not be better off, but they should not be worse off."
22. Serious concerns have been raised that the
equality framework in Northern Ireland, particularly section 75
of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, is a barrier to the implementation
of the Armed Forces Covenant. We have been reassured that the
Northern Ireland equality framework does not create a greater
barrier to implementation of the Covenant in Northern Ireland
than elsewhere in the UK. It is important this is understood by
those involved in the delivery of services to the Armed Forces
23. We were encouraged to hear that the Equality
Commission is in discussion with Northern Ireland departments
on this matter. We believe that those bodies or groups that decline
to implement any aspect of the Covenant on the basis of section
75 should consider carefully whether they are truly upholding
the aims of equality legislation in potentially or actually causing
disadvantage to the Armed Forces Community, including partners
and children, compared to other groups in society.
24. A number of witnesses said that views of certain
political parties in Northern Ireland and the make-up of the Northern
Ireland Executive meant that the Armed Forces Covenant could not
be taken forward in Northern Ireland. This was acknowledged by
the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, who said:
There are obviously political situations in Northern
Ireland that make the delivery sometimes more complicated than
in other parts of the United Kingdom.
However, he also spoke positively of discussions
he had had with political leaders of the main parties in Northern
Ireland on the subject of the Armed Forces Covenant. In particular,
he told us:
I have spoken to all the political leaders in
Northern Ireland. I said to them that, for this to work and not
to become a political hot potato, I needed them, if necessary
publicly, to support that the armed forces are looked after when
they leave the armed forces. I got that commitment from all of
them, including Martin McGuinness.
25. The lack of any contribution from the Northern
Ireland Executive to the first Annual Report on the Armed Forces
Covenant in 2012 was claimed by a number of witnesses to have
arisen because of the political situation in Northern Ireland.
We were told that the Secretary of State for Defence wrote to
the First Minister and deputy First Minister to invite contributions
to the Annual Report, but no reply was received.
In relation to future Reports, the MoD Minister told us:
If possible, we would like the Northern Ireland
Executive to contribute to the annual report in 2013, so in the
run-up to that report, again, we will invite them to make a contribution,
but clearly we cannot compel them to do so.
26. The Northern Ireland Veterans Advisory and Pensions
Committee said that "local politicians have failed to put
any input" into the Annual Report on the Armed Forces Covenant,
and that this disadvantaged veterans in Northern Ireland.
They argued that there should be a formal duty on the Northern
Ireland Executive to contribute to future Annual Reports on the
Armed Forces Covenant.
27. When the Minister of State for Defence Personnel,
Welfare and Veterans gave evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee
on 30 October 2012 on that Committee's inquiry into Support
for Armed Forces Veterans in Wales, he was asked if he was
aware of a different emphasis being put on different policy priorities
in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. His reply was
[...] We have a particular challenge in Northern
Ireland because some of the Sinn Fein-run authorities have a particular
view of the covenant and what it represents. So in Northern Ireland
this area is particularly sensitive and difficult; if we are talking
about a scorecard we have to take that into account.
When asked about this point in oral evidence, the
Minister told us:
As I am already on the record as having given
evidence to one Select Committee on this matter and been quoted,
I am hardly likely to turn up this afternoon and change my testimony.
In essence I have already given an opinion on that.
28. When we took oral evidence from Edwin Poots MLA,
Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and Nelson
McCausland MLA, Minister for Social Development, we asked whether
the Armed Forces Covenant had been discussed by the Northern Ireland
Executive, and were told it had not. Mr McCausland said:
The difficulty is that in Northern Ireland we
have a five-party mandatory coalition. [...]There are people within
that Executive who would have a very, very different view from
the one that I hold regarding the armed forces. They would have
a very negative view about the British Army and therefore, for
that particular reason, refuse almost to engage on these issues.
He went on to say:
The way forward on this is much more through
individual Departments delivering for ex-service personnel, rather
than trying to resolve something that I do not think will be resolved,
as those who hold a different view will not change that view.
Therefore, the relevant Departments, whether in regard to housing
or in regard to health, should move forward on that basis. It
is regrettable that it has to be done on that basis, but in practical
terms that is where we are.
29. We invited the First Minister and deputy First
Minister to give evidence to us in relation to this inquiry but,
despite repeated invitations, no representative of the OFMDFM
was forthcoming. However, we did receive a letter from the First
Minister and deputy First Minister in which they said they were
unable to give evidence on the particular date proposed, but said:
We understand that Minister Poots and Minister
McCausland attended a session on 24 April and gave evidence on
our behalf. (Emphasis
We were also reassured by the evidence from Minister
for Northern Ireland, who told us he had spoken to all of the
leaders of the Northern Ireland political parties, and had their
support "that the armed forces are looked after when they
leave the armed forces."
30. We understand the sensitivities of this issue
for some members of the Executive, but we were nonetheless very
disappointed that the First Minister and deputy First Minister
felt unable to give evidence to us as part of our inquiry. We
particularly wanted to question them about the contribution of
the Northern Ireland Executive to the Annual Report on the Armed
Forces Covenant, representation for Northern Ireland on the Covenant
Reference Group, and relationships between the Executive and HM
Government. We note, however, that their reply to our invitation
said that Mr Poots and Mr McCausland gave evidence on behalf of
the First Minister and deputy First Minister.
31. We were encouraged to hear that the Minister
of State for Northern Ireland had met with the political leaders
of the main parties in Northern Ireland to discuss the Armed Forces
Covenant. We agree with him that the implementation of the Armed
Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland should not become a "political
32. A further issue raised with us was the matter
of personal security for current and former members of the Armed
Forces in Northern Ireland, particularly for those that had served
in the UDR or RIR (Home Service). The Regimental Association of
the Royal Irish Regiment told us that those personnel had security
needs when leaving the Service, which were not addressed, and
that there were still threats to serving soldiers and veterans
in Northern Ireland.
The Royal British Legion flagged security up as one issue that
existed in Northern Ireland that would not necessarily be resolved
by implementing the Covenant.
The MoD's written submission also acknowledged that the current
security situation meant members of the Armed Forces Community
"will sometimes try and reduce their exposure to a higher
level of security risk by concealing their links to the Armed
9 Ev 111 Back
Ev 114 Back
Ev 107 Back
Qq 105, 372, 393, 461 Back
Northern Ireland Act 1998, Section 75 Back
Qq 396-397 Back
Qq 412-414 Back
Qq 10, 42 Back
Ev 138 Back
Q 436 Back
Ev 111 Back
Ev 114 Back