Johnny Mercer was never going to last long in frontline politics. As veterans’ minister, the former soldier has always presented his unruffled, plain-speaking attitude as a virtue. He’s the kind of politician who, despite being an MP at the time, once appeared half-naked in an advert for Dove shower gel; who, when asked if he had ever taken drugs, replied: “You don’t put diesel in a Ferrari.”
Of course, such candour has its advantages. But not in frontline politics — where, for good or ill, a different set of skills is needed to make allies and get things done.
And so it was hardly surprising that Mercer was unceremoniously sacked this week, after expressing anger at the Government’s failure to keep its promise to protect veterans of the British Armed Forces from facing prosecution for historic offences. Next week, two unnamed veterans will go on trial in Belfast for the 1972 murder of an IRA commander — the first time that British soldiers will be prosecuted for the alleged killing of an IRA terrorist.
Mercer was understandably frustrated; the Government had previously pledged that such a prosecution would never occur. Few sacked politicians can say they were dismissed for taking a stand on an important issue. Mercer, in that respect, is the exception.
For ultimately, it would have been far easier for Mercer to have taken the easy way out and turn a blind eye to the trial. The issue of historic prosecutions is an ethical and political nightmare, one which is very easy to put off — as successive governments have demonstrated.
Even when such investigations do take place, they tend to be far from fruitful. Take, for example, the probe into the killings in Londonderry in 1972 that became known as Bloody Sunday, when 13 people were killed. It gave rise to the longest and costliest inquiry in British legal history.
The Saville Inquiry published its findings in 2010 — a full 12 years after it was established — and found that a number of the soldiers present on the day fired in a way that was “unjustified and unjustifiable”. And yet, for the soldiers who took part, the Saville inquiry was of little utility. They were granted legal immunity from future prosecution so long as they told the truth. But a number of the soldiers — most notably the man known as Soldier F — perjured themselves in their attempts to whitewash their actions, thus leaving themselves open for future prosecution.
Not that anyone was in any hurry to do so. After Lord Saville’s report was published, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) announced that it would begin a murder investigation into the killings. And there was a distinct sense of foot-dragging around the matter.
The PSNI announced that it would have to begin its investigations as though they were starting from scratch, implying that the incomparably detailed Saville report had no worth. It took almost a decade for them to decide to only prosecute one of the soldiers — Soldier F — for his actions on the day. Even now Soldier F only faces prosecution for two of the deaths he was most likely responsible for — much to the horror of the families of other victims, who are believed to have been killed by Soldier F.
Today, discussion surrounding Soldier F’s prosecution tends to be strikingly reductive: either wholeheartedly in support of the prosecution or in defence of the veteran.
And on the face of it, it seems like a straightforward decision to make. Having watched Soldier F testify in 2003 — and written a book on the matter — I can say with certainty that he is a liar. He pretends to have no memory of what happened on that day because he knows that what he did was indefensible; he disgraced not just his regiment but his country. In any normal situation, it would be impossible to justify not prosecuting him.
But the situation in Northern Ireland is not normal — not least because prosecutions there have become a very one-sided affair. In order to secure the current peace arrangements, it was necessary to take decisions that would ordinarily be unconscionable. Most notably, the British government, led by Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, carried out secret side-deals with the IRA and its political wing Sinn Fein as part of the Good Friday Agreement. These included the assurance to unconvicted terrorists who were “on the run” that they would not be prosecuted for their historic crimes.
Blair and Campbell kept the existence of these letters classified, knowing full well that the British public would not be able to stomach them. Indeed, these “get out of jail free” letters remained such a secret that when John Downey was prosecuted in 2014 for his participation in the IRA’s 1982 Hyde Park Bombing, the trial collapsed when the defence produced the assurances secretly given to Downey by the British government.
Downey was as responsible for the Hyde Park Bombing as Soldier F was for Bloody Sunday — yet it is only one of these men who faces prosecution. And as a result, many believe there is a double-standard at play here: why should Soldier F face the possibility of being charged one day when a number of the terrorists Britain was fighting are able to walk free?
Certainly it’s a legitimate concern. But is this double-standard not defensible? After all, Downey was a member of a proscribed terrorist organisation, while Soldier F was a serving representative of the state. Surely a soldier must be held to a higher standard than a terrorist?
For the most part, that claim has a certain appeal, and if it were the case that the army still has lessons to learn from Bloody Sunday and its aftermath, then it might be more applicable. But it is almost fifty years since Bloody Sunday happened, and the inquiries into it — in particular the Saville Inquiry — have already established the many lessons that should have been learned. There has even been a Prime Ministerial apology for the actions of British soldiers on the day. What more is there to achieve?
Mercer, then, was right to condemn the Government for failing on its promise not to allow former servicemen to appear in court. But now that he is on the backbenches, perhaps he can put forward a more subtle argument that needs making.
For ultimately, even in the case of Soldier F, there is little need to condone or defend the historical actions of the few rogue British troops in Northern Ireland. That doesn’t mean whitewashing Soldier F for his crimes, any more than it means whitewashing Downey for his.
But either both men are in court or neither is. Make that case, and it’s up to Sinn Fein and their supporters to make the next move.