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LONDON — U.K. Defense Minister Johnny Mercer has been sacked after hitting out at Boris Johnson’s stance on protecting veterans who served in Northern Ireland.
The former army officer said he had been “relieved of my responsibilities in Government tonight,” a move that comes after what he saw as a failure of the U.K. government to prevent ex-soldiers being prosecuted for alleged crimes during the decades-long Troubles conflict.
Mercer was planning to quit at the House of Commons despatch box tomorrow but Downing Street told him to resign before that could happen. He refused and was subsequently sacked.
He will be replaced by Aldershot MP Leo Docherty, a former British army officer.
Two unnamed soldiers will go on trial in Belfast next week for the 1972 murder of an IRA commander. It is the first time British veterans will be prosecuted for the alleged killing of an IRA terrorist. Mercer felt their appearance in court would make his position untenable.
In a resignation letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson posted online, Mercer said he had hoped the Conservative leader’s tenure “would signal a step change” in the treatment of veterans in the U.K.
But he added: “Whilst we continue to say all the right things, you will understand that if we fail to match that with what we deliver, we risk damaging an already bruised Veteran’s [sic] cohort further: as I told you last month in our first face to face meeting, we crossed that line some time ago.”
Mercer said: “I am of course, desperately sad events have transpired the way they have — I truly have exhausted my efforts and my team to make it work. But the truth is politics always was a means to change how this Country treats her military veterans, and I remain genuinely appalled by the experiences of some of this Nation’s finest people who have served in the Armed Forces.”
The Conservative MP was left frustrated after failing to convince the government to protect troops who served in Northern Ireland from what he saw as “vexatious” prosecutions as part of its Overseas Operations Bill. The bill offers such protections for other former soldiers, but the issue is politically toxic in Northern Ireland.
Campaigners who want the prosecutions to take place argue the importance of getting justice for victims.
In a video message last month Mercer said it had been “a real uphill battle” to make progress on the issue “because as you will have noticed politicians are really good about talking a great game when it comes to our military but when it comes to actually doing something for them like voting to end repeat prosecutions for our servicemen and women they go running for the hills.”
His departure is a blow for Johnson, who pledged to protect Northern Ireland veterans from prosecution during the 2019 Conservative leadership election campaign.