Northern Ireland attitudes to UK Armed Forces: “A positive sign”

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Northern Ireland attitudes to UK Armed Forces: “A positive sign”
by Sam Allen for Shared Future News
13 June 2018

The British Army’s deployment to Northern Ireland was the longest operation in its history. During the 30-year conflict, 1,441 members of the UK Armed Forces were killed and it is estimated that the military killed 306 people.

The British military is major part of the legacy of the Troubles and there is contentious debate over its role in the conflict. The ARK organisation, as part of their launch of the findings of the 2017 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, investigated how attitudes have changed since the end of the hostilities. The research body presented the results of a poll documenting people’s attitudes in Northern Ireland towards the British military.

The talk took place on at the Skainos Centre, Belfast, and was presented by Professor Chérie Armour and Dr Bethany Waterhouse-Bradley. After a brief introduction about the work of ARK from Dr Paula Devine, the floor was given to Armour, who gave some context and background information regarding the study. This report on public opinion of UK Armed Forces is one of several reports from the Northern Ireland Veterans’ Health and Wellbeing Study (NIVHWS). The aim of these studies is “to make recommendations on how support available to veterans in Northern Ireland might be optimised in terms of structures, protocols, communications and services”.

Noteworthy findings from the reports include that there were only 19 “veteran orientated charitable organisations” in Northern Ireland compared to 1,818 such groups in England and Wales and 419 in Scotland. (A new veterans support office in Northern Ireland was created since this study.) It was also revealed that Northern Ireland veteran charities relied heavily on “informal relationships for referrals or for collaborative working” and there were many cases of “overlapping membership” between groups. Security was a major worry for many veterans who engaged with these organisations. Another report found that “military stigma” (feeling stigmatised for being in the military) was an issue amongst veterans as well as the general stigma of having a mental illness.

Waterhouse-Bradley then spoke about the report on Northern Ireland attitudes to the military. She said that interest in this topic was initially sparked from the fact that in the wider UK, public opinion of the British military “is the highest ever recorded” (83% polled high or very high opinion). She added that this was in spite of growing dissatisfaction with British foreign policy. The general feeling was that the UK public separates the individual soldier from the military actions the government decides.

The results of the Northern Ireland poll were then analysed. In particular, the researchers wanted to see if Northern Ireland residents could “separate out issues that are legacy related and the specific behaviour of the UK Armed Forces during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, versus the UK Armed Forces in the present day”. Again, this was to determine if there was a difference between judging the soldiers and judging the deployment.

In regards to their opinion on how the British Army acted during the Troubles, most Northern Ireland respondents selected the “Neither high nor low” option (27%). “Don’t know” was at 14%. Positive opinion came in at 21% “high” and 12% “very high”. Negative opinion was 12% “low” and 14% “very low”. Public opinion in Northern Ireland of the Armed Forces today (poll taken 2017) showed notable improvement. Positive attitudes had increased: “high” to 27% and “very high” to 15%. Both negative responses decreased in size with “low” dropping to 5% and “very low” to 7%. The neutral response of “neither high nor low” increased substantially to 35%, while “don’t know” decreased slightly to 11%. The demographic breakdown showed that, somewhat unsurprisingly, that males, older citizens and those from a Protestant background were much more likely to have a positive view of the UK Armed Forces.

Waterhouse-Bradley stated that what genuinely surprised the researchers was the largely positive response in the “social distance” questions. The polling showed that 70% of respondents would be comfortable if a member of the military moved next door to them, with only 13% feeling uncomfortable and 15% feeling neither. The results for the question of whether they would feel comfortable/uncomfortable if a close relative married a member of the Armed Forces were more or less identical. There was a slightly lower positive response (63%) and higher negative response (20%) over whether the respondent would be comfortable/uncomfortable if a family member actually joined the Armed Forces.

The next sets of results were responses to the questions of whether alcohol abuse and mental health are serious issues in the Armed Forces. Waterhouse-Bradley noted that this largely reflected the opinions of the public in the rest of the UK. Half of respondents said that alcohol abuse was a problem in the British military (40% “agree”, 10% “strongly agree”). Only 15% said it wasn’t a big issue (13% “disagree”, 2% “strongly disagree”), 16% said they weren’t sure and 19% selected “neither agree nor disagree”, and over three quarters of respondents felt there should be specialist mental health services in Northern Ireland for veterans.

Waterhouse-Bradley then addressed the issue of the Armed Forces Covenant (AFC), which is an official document that declares “respect, support, and fair treatment” for members and their families of the UK Armed Forces:

“Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services. Special consideration is appropriate in some cases, especially for those who have given most such as the injured and the bereaved.”

She stated that “the majority of people [80%] had, as we expected, no idea what it was”. Those who had some connection to the military, such as a serving family member, were more likely to have knowledge of the AFC but “there was still quite a large chunk of that population that didn’t know about the Covenant either”. When the overall aims of the AFC were explained, most respondents said this was “definitely or probably fair” (78%).

Regarding whether service personnel should get priority in England for housing or health care if they face specific challenges due to their service (e.g. injury), the result was mostly positive with 72% saying this was fair. In response to whether this scheme should be extended to ex-soldiers living in Northern Ireland, the majority thought this was fair (66%) and those who thought it was not fair increased slightly (22%). It was a similar outcome concerning NI military personnel maintaining their position on the housing waiting list if on deployment (67% “fair”), and getting priority access to PTSD treatment (69% “fair”).

Religious background was a big factor determining if a person thought members of the Armed Forces should receive special treatment. Results showed that 87% of Protestants thought injured soldiers should be front of the queue for housing and health treatment, but only 47% of Catholics shared this opinion. Waterhouse-Bradley did add the caveat that this dichotomy may be partially due to the fact that health and social services are in high demand in Catholic areas, and it may not be simply because of legacy issues.

In conclusion, Waterhouse-Bradley pointed out that people with family connections to military members had, unsurprisingly, higher opinions of the British military. Though what was more important was that amongst Catholics, personal connections were the biggest predictor of having a favourable view of the UK Armed Forces.

“There’s real positive implications here” stated Waterhouse-Bradley. “For people to be showing positive attitudes at this rate, at this point in time, I think is a positive sign.” However she also warned that “there is definitely a problem here with perceptions around mental health”.

The recommendations in light of this report, and previous reports, were as follows:

Increase efforts towards community integration between the Armed Forces and civilians
The public sector should recognise that veterans are worried about disclosing their military background due to security/discrimination concerns
Awareness training for the general population on the struggles veterans face
Increase efforts to inform veterans and military personnel about AFC
Use newly gathered information to update debate over implementing AFC in Northern Ireland

A period for questions and comments followed after the presentation.

One audience member stated that they were surprised by the high percentage of positive opinions; “It’s surprising but very encouraging.” Another attendee stated that for those working in veteran mental health services, they may have a skewed view of veteran mental health as they see the “damaged” ones more regularly. As a result, they may believe that disorders amongst veterans are abnormally high.

It was also brought up that a significant portion of military personnel didn’t feel respected by the public, despite the findings of the survey. This was pointed out as being “really problematic for [veteran] mental health”. Following this observation, one of the panel mentioned that a study carried out amongst the Danish Armed Forces found that not being reintegrated into the community had serious negative psychological consequences. Likewise, many Troubles veterans feel like a “forgotten population” in Northern Ireland. There was also the issue of “moral injury” — the feeling of being let down or betrayed by superiors. This was identified as another main contributor to mental illness and PTSD symptoms.

The full report on the study is available online.

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