I am honoured to be here today in Craigavon Civic Centre to commemorate Armed Forces Day.
I’m grateful to David Simpson MP for the kind invitation to attend.
Armed Forces Day provides us with the opportunity to show our support for those who serve in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces and to those who have served in previous generations.
We, as a nation, continue to be indebted to those who today risk their lives in many places around the world and to the veterans whose service we will never forget and always honour.
I believe that the United Kingdom has the finest armed forces in the world.
Despite the difficult economic circumstances we face, we continue to have one of the largest defence budgets in the world.
And we’re determined that our armed forces have the best equipment and support.
Northern Ireland makes a huge contribution to our regular forces and reserves, with consistently high levels of recruitment here.
I must single out the Irish Guards and the Royal Irish Regiment for special praise, not least for their deployments in Afghanistan.
And we’ll never forget the people who served over the 30 years of Northern Ireland’s Operation Banner with great distinction and bravery.
They did a hugely difficult job and sadly there were many who died in the line of duty.
Without their sacrifice and service, democracy would never have prevailed over terrorism and we must never forget the huge debt of gratitude we owe them.
I felt proud and humbled yesterday to stand side by side with Her Majesty the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh as we remembered the fallen of the Great War and celebrated the service of the Royal British Legion.
In a few days I will be travelling to France to take part in commemoration ceremonies at the Somme to mark the events there that hold such significance for the people of Northern Ireland.
We will remember the heroism of the 36 (Ulster) Division; But we also recall the bravery too of the 16 (Irish) at Guillemont.
The war affected all parts of this island.
The Minister of State for Northern Ireland will be participating in the Somme commemoration at Belfast City Hall and our Irish counterparts will stand with us during both of these events.
2014 of course marks a very significant centenary.
In this and in coming years, those who served in the First World War will be at the forefront of our minds.
The First World War claimed the lives of over 10 million military personnel and countless more civilians across the globe.
It led to huge social change across the UK and Europe with a profound impact on the lives of everyone.
One hundred years on, we are all connected to the First World War not just through family history, the heritage of our local communities but because of the part played by the war in creating the world in which we live today.
I believe that this centenary year and those still to come provide an opportunity to explore and reflect on the shared history between the UK and Ireland and between the two main traditions in Northern Ireland.
The Government’s goal is that we use the events around these centenaries to promote reconciliation and enhance prospects for a peaceful, shared future.
One positive way of encouraging this is through cross-community commemoration.
It was great to see members of branches of the Royal British Legion in the Republic of Ireland meeting her Majesty in Coleraine yesterday.
We’re also working with the Irish Government and that has included a historic first joint visit by the Prime Minister and Taoiseach to the war graves in Flanders in December last year.
In March, I joined the Irish Minister for Arts Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, in laying the foundation stone for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cross of Sacrifice at Glasnevin cemetery in Dublin.
This is the first of its kind in Ireland and will serve as a memorial to the soldiers from across the whole island who lost their lives during the course of both world wars.
Some of you may also be aware of the implementation of a project to honour Victoria Cross recipients by placing commemorative paving stones in their birth towns across the UK.
My officials are working with the NI First World War Centenary Committee, chaired by Jeffrey Donaldson, to coordinate the installation of the stones for recipients whose birthplace is in modern-day Northern Ireland.
The Irish Government are also engaged with this programme and their enthusiasm for honouring servicemen in this fashion is extremely positive and worthy of note.
I hope that the tone has been set for the First World War centenary to be recognised and commemorated in the manner which it deserves, that is with consideration, respect and gratitude.