DUP calls for NI legal changes to help military personnel
The DUP has called for changes to Northern Ireland's 1998 peace agreement in order to secure extra support for serving and former military personnel.
Jeffrey Donaldson made the call during a DUP-sponsored debate on the Military Covenant in the House of Commons.
He said Northern Ireland equality law made it impossible to discriminate in favour of the armed forces.
But the UK veterans minister said it was not for Westminster to dictate to Stormont how to implement the covenant.'Special case'
The covenant recognises that the government has a duty of care to people who serve in the military and responsibilities include paying towards health costs and supporting them in areas such as housing and education when they return from conflict.
Opening the debate on Wednesday, Mr Donaldson argued that Northern Ireland was a "special case" and legal changes may be required to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in order to improve the armed forces' access to public services.
He told MPs: "That special problem is called Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 - the equality legislation that was a key element of the Belfast Agreement."
Mr Donaldson said Section 75 "places a statutory duty on public authorities that in carrying out their functions in relation to Northern Ireland they have to promote equality".'Disadvantaged'
He said officials in government departments indicated that the legislation meant it was impossible to give "any form of preferential treatment" to people covered by the covenant.
"Bear in mind that the Military Covenant only requires action to be taken to ensure that a veteran or member of the armed forces is not disadvantaged by virtue of serving or having served in the armed forces," Mr Donaldson said.
"In other words they are placed in the position they would have been had they been a civilian - but Section 75 is being used in a way that perhaps prevents full implementation of the Military Covenant in Northern Ireland, so we've got a problem here."
The DUP MP added that there were also difficulties over education for service children because the security situation meant parents were unable to disclose their military background.
Addressing the DUP motion, UK Veterans Minister Mark Francois said the Military Covenant applied in Northern Ireland as it did the rest of the UK.'Cornerstones'
But he told MPs: "Many of the main areas the covenant covers, such as housing, health and education, all lie within the devolved field and these services are provided for by Northern Ireland departments and are answerable to the Northern Ireland ministers in the executive, not all of whom currently support this agenda."
The Conservative MP admitted it was a dilemma but urged Stormont ministers to agree how the covenant should be applied.
"There are some who say Section 75 is a hindrance and should be amended to somehow allow the covenant to be applied," Mr Francois said.
"Of course we want to see the armed forces covenant principles applied right across the UK.
"However, if the Northern Ireland Executive decides not to proceed with the covenant, that does not in itself justify amending Section 75, which is one of the cornerstones of the architecture of the Belfast agreement."