Dr Jana Ross, Dr Bethany Waterhouse-Bradley and Professor Cherie Armour of the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing Study explore the public’s attitudes toward the Armed Forces Covenant.
The 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times (NILT) Survey examined, for the first time ever, the attitudes of the Northern Irish public to the UK Armed Forces. Overall, and perhaps surprisingly, given the recent history of armed socio-political conflict and ongoing political discord in the region, the attitudes were positive.
Northern Ireland is the only devolved nation in the UK, in which the Armed Forces Covenant has not been fully adopted.
The Armed Forces Covenant is a promise made on behalf of the UK Government that those who serve and have served in the UK Armed Forces, including their families, will not face disadvantage. In the rest of the UK, the Covenant underpins specialist health and social services to support the Armed Forces personnel, veterans and their families. In Northern Ireland, there are no statutory services which specifically target the needs of veterans and their families; which some argue makes them disadvantaged compared with their UK counterparts.
According to key government officials in NI, the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in Northern Ireland is hampered by the Equality Legislation, which came into force as part of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
This legislation marked the end of the sectarian conflict in the region, also known as The Troubles, and was central to the establishment of a shared regional government. Section 75 of the Act states that public authorities in Northern Ireland must promote equality of opportunity irrespective of one’s religious belief, political opinion, racial group, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender, disability and dependant status.
However, since military status is not one of the protected characteristics, the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant, which states that under some circumstances, special measures should be taken to support those members or ex-members of the Armed Forces who have ‘given most’ in the line of duty, is seen to be in breach of Section 75.
What has, for a long time, been missing from the discussions regarding the Armed Forces Covenant and promotion of equality in the region, was the public opinion on this issue. In 2017, researchers from Ulster University secured funding from Forces in Mind Trust to include questions on public opinions to the UK Armed Forces in the 2017 NILT Survey.
NILT is an annual cross-sectional survey examining the opinions of the Northern Irish public on a variety of social policy issues. The questions are grouped into modules, some of which change every year. In 2017, a total of 1,203 adults living in Northern Ireland completed face to face interviews and self-completion questionnaires in their own homes. A random sample of addresses was selected from the Postcode Address File and one person from each household, whose birthday was next, was subsequently asked to participate in the Survey.
When asked about their general opinion of the UK Armed Forces, a total of 42% of the Northern Irish population had a high or a very high opinion, with only 12% having a low or a very low opinion, and the rest being in between.
Interestingly, a total of 80% of participants indicated that they had never heard of the Armed Forces Covenant.
However, the vast majority agreed with the principles of the Covenant, when asked through scenario-based questions. For example, 66% believed that an ex-soldier should be given priority health treatment or housing if they had significant injuries.
“Suppose there was an ex-soldier living in Northern Ireland. If this soldier was given priority health treatment or housing, because they had received significant injuries, do you think that this would be generally fair or unfair?”
A total of 67% believed that it would be fair for a soldier to keep their place on a housing list, whilst they are deployed and 69% believed it to be fair for a soldier with service-related posttraumatic stress disorder to get priority mental health treatment.
The opinions were more favourable amongst Protestants compared to Catholics and slightly more favourable amongst older people compared to younger people. Full results can be found in the report published by researchers at Ulster University entitled Public Attitudes to the UK Armed Forces in Northern Ireland.
Overall, the findings from the 2017 NILT Survey imply that the majority of the Northern Irish public agree with the principles of the Armed Forces Covenant. These findings have important implications for the implementation of the Armed Forces Covenant in the region and are likely to stimulate further debates on the topic and possibly policy and legislative changes.
Data from the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey can be accessed from the UK Data Service.
Dr Jana Ross is a Research Associate based in the Psychology Research Institute, Ulster University. She currently works on the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing Study and is particularly interested in researching psychological trauma, posttraumatic stress disorder and military mental health.
Dr Bethany Waterhouse-Bradley is a lecturer in Health and Social Care Policy at Ulster University. She is the Project Co-Ordinator for the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing Study. Her work is concerned with the representation of marginalised groups in public policy and services, power, and claims-making.
Professor Cherie Armour is a Professor in Psychological Trauma and Mental Health and the Associate Dean for Research and Impact at Ulster University. Cherie is the President of the UK Psychological Trauma Society and the principal investigator of the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing Study.