Military covenant: “I may need your help publicly on this…”

For the second year in a row, an Irish Government Minister has taken part in the Battle of the Somme commemoration at Belfast City Hall – this time it was the turn of Labour TD, Joe Costello.  Also present were the Northern Ireland First Minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson, and representatives from the Ulster Unionists, the Alliance Party and the SDLP.  The Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó’Muilleoir, has continued his party’s boycott of the official ceremony. [Are you serious?! – Ed]  As the BBC report notes

Earlier the Lord Mayor of Belfast, Sinn Féin’s Máirtín Ó’Muilleoir, laid a wreath ahead of the ceremony.

Belfast City Council also passed a motion “paying gratitude to the brave men of the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish Division”. The motion added that their “heroism will never be forgotten”.

Mr Costello said he was pleased to travel to Belfast to take part in the commemoration.

The Labour TD said he had come to “commemorate the bravery and courage of Irish men throughout the island of Ireland who fought and died”.

Mr Robinson told the BBC the Battle of the Somme was an “enormous event from a Northern Ireland perspective”.

In other culture war news, inside the chamber last night, the council voted 21 to 20 in favour of a policy going ahead of flying the Armed Forces Day Flag six days each year.  From the News Letter report

The flag has just been flown for six days from City Hall, leading up to and including Armed Forces Day on Saturday – the second successive year this has been the case.

However, the issue has divided city councillors, with Sinn Fein and SDLP opposed to it ever flying from the building.

The Strategic Policy and Resources Committee voted last month for a policy that the flag would not fly at all.

However last night, at a meeting of the full council, unionists and the Alliance Party voted by the narrowest of margins, 21-20, for a DUP amendment that the policy going ahead should be that the Armed Forces Day Flag flies six days each year.

Sinn Fein councillor Gerard O’Neill said the people he represents had a negative view of the military.

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Stephen Walker reports that NIO Minister Mike Penning has told the NI Affairs Committee at Westminster that the NI Executive have failed to respond to an invitation to  join a working group examining implementation of the armed forces covenant.  From the BBC report

[NIO Minister Mike Penning] said he had received support from political parties in Northern Ireland but no local politicians had come forward to attend a covenant working group.

North Down MP Lady Hermon asked why and he replied: “I don’t know “.

He added that “it would be useful to say the least if they sent a representative”.

His comments were endorsed by Lady Hermon who said input from the Executive would be “extremely useful”.

Conservative MP Oliver Colville suggested that members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee write to the Executive to ask why no-one has come forward.

Mr Penning said he did not want the issue of the military covenant in Northern Ireland to become “a political hot potato”.

He said he had had positive discussions with members of local parties and told MPs that he had also spoken to Deputy First Minster Martin McGuinness. He said that he told Mr McGuinness: “I may need your help publicly on this and he said ‘you have got it’ “. [added emphasis]

Hmm…  Has anything changed since this November 2012 Belfast Telegraph report?

Asked how Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be ranked in terms of the successful implementation of the covenant, which was enshrined in law a year ago, [Mark Francois MP, the Veterans Minister] said: “We have a particular challenge in Northern Ireland because of some of the Sinn Fein-run authorities’ views on the covenant and what it represents.

“In Northern Ireland, this is particularly sensitive and difficult, so if you’re talking about a scorecard we would have to take that into account.”

The military covenant represents Britain’s duty of care to its armed forces, in return for the sacrifices made in the line of duty.

The coalition Government enshrined the covenant in law for the first time, which requires the Defence Secretary to make an annual statement on what the Government is doing to support the armed forces.

This week Prime Minister David Cameron agreed to meet members of the DUP to discuss the issues around the covenant in Northern Ireland.

Responding to a question from the DUP’s Jim Shannon, the Prime Minister said: “It is something I have spoken about with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I know that there are issues about its implementation, but I hope that it can be done.”