Last week I travelled to Cyprus with the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme (AFPS).
I have been enrolled on the scheme since July 2017 and the trip to Cyprus was my final one as an AFPS member, with my graduation from the scheme due to take place in the coming weeks. About 30 MPs from all the major political parties participate in the scheme each year. I elected to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) course for the duration of the scheme and spent around 20 days over the past year – mainly during parliamentary recess times – visiting various RAF bases across the UK as well as visiting the Falkland Islands in February.
During the 5 day trip I, together with a dozen other MPs, visited RAF Akrotiri which is currently Britain’s main mounting base for overseas operations in the Middle East including Syria and Iraq and spent time with British personnel stationed there. We also watched a training exercise by the Royal Anglian Regiment and met with UK army forces deployed to the United Nations mission in Nicosia. Our delegation was taken inside the UN buffer zone in Nicosia and walked through streets and shops which have been abandoned since 1974, as well as the now disused Nicosia Airport.
This was an unforgettable experience and I am grateful to have been given the opportunity to visit Cyprus with the AFPS. It was a privilege to join the United Nations forces and visit the only divided capital in the world, Nicosia. Walking through the deserted streets and seeing shops and cars that have been left untouched since the 1970s was a unique experience. One car we walked past had just 37km on the clock and had been trapped in the buffer zone since 1974!
During my year on the scheme I have had the privilege of meeting personnel from across the armed forces at all different types of bases but it was especially interesting to spend time on an active base and speak to personnel about the operations they are carrying out from there – including over Syria. When I joined the AFPS last year I said I hoped to gain a deeper understanding of the realities of military service and what it is like for troops on the ground. Having now completed my final trip with the scheme, I look forward to making more informed contributions to debates about the armed forces and holding defence ministers to account more effectively when Parliament returns in September.