Johnny Mercer has resigned as Defense Minister, frustrated that the government has failed to deliver on controversial promises to prevent veterans who served in Northern Ireland from prosecution.
After hours of speculation, Downing Street said Boris Johnson had “accepted the resignation” in a terse statement released after 7 pm and thanked Mercer “for his service” as minister since 2019.
News of their intent came when ministers made a significant concession on the related foreign operations bill, agreeing to abandon plans for a five-year limit on prosecutions for war crimes and torture for those who served in Iraq. and Afghanistan.
However, Mercer’s decision is not understood to be related to the war crime concession, rather it relates to his concerns about Northern Ireland.
A source said Mercer had hoped that several upcoming trials involving British veterans would not be held, but added that there was no realistic prospect of designing legislation to retrospectively halt the ongoing prosecutions.
During his Conservative leadership campaign, Johnson had vowed to end the “scourge of vexing historical research” of Northern Ireland veterans. But the government has struggled to introduce legislation due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Some 3,500 people died during the riots, which began in the late 1960s, but despite the passage of time, many of the deaths have only been gradually investigated by the authorities, as would have happened in other parts of the UK.
Among those on trial is Private F, a former paratrooper accused of murdering two people on Bloody Sunday, the 1972 date when soldiers opened fire on civil rights protesters in Derry.
Previously, Downing Street had said it did not know that Mercer intended to resign from the government, although the minister’s allies said he had already informed the prime minister of his decision. When asked if Mercer had spoken to Johnson, the prime minister’s spokesman said: “I don’t know they had any conversations.”
The ministers had tried to end what the government called “vexatious prosecutions” affecting soldiers who served abroad, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere by introducing the foreign operations bill.
The key feature of the bill was to introduce a presumption against the prosecution of military personnel, which would apply after five years. Sex crimes were excluded from the bill’s time limit. But until the concession, torture and war crimes were not excluded. Last week, the comrades voted 333-228 to reverse that, forcing the Commons to consider the issue again.
However, on Tuesday afternoon, the Defense Ministry announced a surprise drop, saying “we have heard the concerns.” A spokesman for the Defense Ministry said: “The crimes excluded in part one of the bill will be expanded to include torture, genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Labor said it welcomed the escalation, but John Healey, the party’s shadow defense secretary, said he wanted to study the details. The human rights charity Reprieve said the concession was significant, but noted that cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment was not included on the list. Dan Dolan, Reprieve’s defense director, added: “This move to decriminalize torture has always been disastrously misjudged.”
Mercer rose to the rank of captain in the Royal Artillery and served three times in Afghanistan. He stated that he entered politics nearly a decade ago to improve the treatment of veterans. He became an MP for Plymouth Moor View in 2015, succeeding Labor.
Sometimes prone to outbursts, Mercer described Theresa May’s government as a “shit show” in 2018, complaining that her Brexit commitments had not pleased anyone. He said he would not necessarily vote conservative if he had not been a party deputy.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism