BELFAST (Reuters) – Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein expressed concern on Saturday over a request by Northern Ireland’s health minister for British military assistance in response to the coronavirus, saying it had raised the sensitive issue with the British government.
The presence of British armed forces in Northern Ireland would be highly contentious for some Irish nationalists because of the role some soldiers played in 30 years of violence up to a 1998 peace deal that introduced a power-sharing government.
The accord mostly ended the so-called “Troubles” fought between security services, Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland and Protestant unionists wishing to stay in the United Kingdom. But there are still sporadic attacks, mainly from nationalist splinter groups who oppose the peace process.
Pro-British Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) Health Minister Robin Swann signed off on a request on Friday for military support distributing life-saving equipment and the possible development of a temporary field hospital.
“My number one priority right now is to save lives and protect those of the staff on the front line. I believe the time has now come that the Ministry of Defence can help me with that,” Swann said in a statement.
Deaths in the British-run region from COVID-19 rose to 107 on Saturday.
Sinn Fein, the largest nationalist party in the devolved administration, said no proposal to use British military personnel for roles normally performed by civilians had come before the regional executive.
“Sinn Fein has made clear we will not rule out any measure necessary to save lives,” Michelle O’Neill, the pro-Irish unity party’s leader in Northern Ireland, said in a statement.
“(But) the health minister has a responsibility to exhaust all options,” the region’s deputy first minister added.
She said she had raised “the sensitivities of British military intervention” directly with Britain’s Northern Ireland minister.
A spokeswoman for the health department said Swann had publicly stated his intention to make the request a week ago and O’Neill had been informed of the decision.
Doug Beattie, a UUP lawmaker and ex-British army captain, told Reuters the request did not mean new soldiers being brought in from Britain but using navy, air force and army personnel who remained after the army’s general withdrawal from the region.
Other parties also criticised Sinn Fein’s intervention.
The British army has been involved in the distribution of personal protective equipment to other parts of the United Kingdom and in building a new hospital in London.
Editing by Padraic Halpin and Frances Kerry