‘Huge step forward for armed forces personnel’

Brenda Hale MLA Laying a Wreath at Lisburn Cenotaph in memory of husband Captain Mark Hale who was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2009, while fighting Taliban. US4611-129AO
Brenda Hale MLA Laying a Wreath at Lisburn Cenotaph in memory of husband Captain Mark Hale who was killed in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2009, while fighting Taliban. US4611-129AO

The opening of offices to aid armed forces personnel across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland helps fulfil an ethical duty we have towards troops, writes war widow and Lagan Valley election candidate BRENDA HALE

After six years, eight months and 21 days of constant campaigning and lobbying it is with an emotionally exhausted sigh of relief that I welcome the launch of the Gateway Project at the National Liberal Club in London.

The Gateway Project, which will be directed by both the Ministry of Defence and Veterans UK, will see regional offices open across the four UK jurisdictions to advise and help veterans, service personnel and their families.

When I first walked into Whitehall in April 2010, NI-based personnel were not even on the radar of officials. We were considered politically difficult – at best left alone, or at worst hidden away so as not to offend nationalist agendas.

As more and more service personnel and their families chose to make the transition back to Northern Ireland with the long term effects of home service under Operation Banner, it became more and more apparent of the need for and the lack of Military Covenant and the political will to make a noise about it. The death of my husband in Afghanistan challenged me in more ways than one, as coffin after coffin was delivered into the hands of devastated families and men and women returned home without faces, arms, legs and often without their minds.

To care for these families and personnel was never and should never be a political obligation...it is a moral one.

The Gateway Project will see regional centres that will advise, help and signpost service personnel and their families with concerns and issues such as health, pensions, education and housing.

Initially it was decided that, for Section 75 reasons, Gateway would not be available here in Northern Ireland – but after intensive and exhaustive lobbying I am pleased to say it will.

This is not a golden wand, but what it does give us is a framework which is UK-wide that we can operate within, regardless of regiment or service. The launch coincides with the extension of the aftercare service to personnel who signed up to the Forces from the Republic of Ireland.

We now have an aftercare that operates on both sides of the border with three personnel already in place, with the aim to give the same service to those who chose to serve the Crown whether they lived in Londonderry or Limerick.

I recognise and accept that we still have a long way to go but it is, finally, a huge step forward. The MoDis acknowledging the particular difficulties we face in NI and is at last looking for ways forward.