Today sacked defence minister Johnny Mercer will take a seat in the gallery at Belfast Crown Court where the first servicemen in British military history will face trial for the killing of an active IRA member.
He is determined that he, at least, will not abandon the two ex-paratroopers, known only as Soldier A and Soldier C, who stand accused over the shooting of official IRA man Joe McCann almost half a century ago.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson vowed, during his leadership campaign, to protect our veterans from legal witch-hunts. He appointed Johnny as veterans’ minister, who tried with all his might to honour the Government’s pledge until it finally dawned on him earlier this month that he was, to borrow his salty language, ‘p***ing in the wind’.
‘We have failed in our promise to our Northern Ireland veterans,’ he says. ‘I can’t take it that we’ve cut these men off, so I’ll sit there and at least they’ll know they have one friend in the room – but that’s not citizen Johnny Mercer’s job, that’s the UK Government’s job.’
Johnny, a former army captain of 14 years who has completed three tours of Afghanistan, is not a man prone to hyperbole, but he tells me ‘a little part of me died’ when it finally dawned on him two weeks ago the ‘cowards’ and ‘snakes’ that surround the Prime Minister at the heart of government had failed the men and women he vowed to support
This is the first in-depth interview he has given since he was sacked by text last week – a day before he intended to resign over the ‘appalling betrayal’ of those who served during the Troubles.
We meet at his airy family home in Cornwall as a courier arrives to collect his ministerial laptop.
‘When you get sacked it’s brutal,’ he says. ‘I actually didn’t want to go and kick the system. I wanted to explain myself at the despatch box before I went. But the system starts doing what the system does. I have to defend myself.
‘That place is a cesspit. When I read an unnamed Government insider at No10 saying, “We’ve destroyed his little plan to flounce out in a blaze of glory” I realised they just didn’t get it. They cannot understand I would resign because I actually care about the veterans.’
Johnny, a former army captain of 14 years who has completed three tours of Afghanistan, is not a man prone to hyperbole, but he tells me ‘a little part of me died’ when it finally dawned on him two weeks ago the ‘cowards’ and ‘snakes’ that surround the Prime Minister at the heart of government had failed the men and women he vowed to support.
‘I was told, “We’ll deliver legislation [to protect the Northern Ireland veterans] within 100 days.” Then it’s, “We will deliver something by the summer, then autumn, then Christmas.” Then, two weeks ago, the people who are supposed to be drawing up the legislation tell me not to worry because they’re looking at powers to either reduce sentences or grant mercy.’ He shakes his head, as well he might.
A decade ago when Johnny, now 39, served his country in Afghanistan, a colleague and friend was shot in the face and died in his arms. There were nine in his patrol
This is the first time this truly shabby proposal has been made public. These are, after all, our old soldiers, many of whom are now grandfathers. Some are so terrified of the effect upon their families of prosecution that they are taking their own lives or drinking themselves to death. They were promised their country would not throw them to the wolves. Today it has.
‘I wrote to the Prime Minister at Christmas saying I was really concerned that the first trial was coming down the track and we’d made promises to these guys that it wasn’t happening,’ he says.
‘I said he’d asked me to look at it and what they were going through was unacceptable. That letter was sent back from No10 to my senior civil servant for him to reply to. You laugh. It’s like a comedy sketch. But another little piece of you dies, too.’
Johnny has recently showered when I arrive. He has been on his peloton bike in the garage working off his fury. He says at least he can be ‘happy again’ now he is out of the ‘horrendous’ job.
‘The levels of dishonesty currently in that place are unacceptable,’ he says. ‘We had a written ministerial statement that landed with the first reading of the Overseas Operations Bill [a bill he championed ensuring veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq were protected from legal witch-hunts] that committed to equal treatment for those in Northern Ireland. That was a big deal. It was the first time the Government had committed to something.
‘Then I was asked to stop repeating that ministerial statement. I was asked to stop repeating our manifesto commitment. I was asked to stop repeating what the Prime Minister said at the despatch box. I said, “No, of course I’m going to repeat it.’’’
A decade ago when Johnny, now 39, served his country in Afghanistan, a colleague and friend was shot in the face and died in his arms. There were nine in his patrol.
‘That’s when you earn your stripes. Some guys are stunned, some guys are crying and some guys are unable to function. You have to think clearly not to get everyone killed. We’re literally running and shooting whilst carrying his body out.’
Determined not to ‘ambush’ those with whom he’d worked, Johnny informed Boris Johnson of his decision on Monday and his boss, defence secretary Ben Wallace, and whip Leo Doherty on Tuesday
Johnny retrieved the body and supported the soldier’s parents until their deaths. This is a man who has ‘duty’ in his DNA. No wonder he is appalled by the antics of the self-serving ‘snakes’ at Westminster – some of whom, he says, are ‘so crooked they can’t lie straight in bed’.
‘I respect Dominic Raab,’ he says. ‘He shoots straight. Sajid Javid [the former Chancellor] shot straight, too. He shot so straight he shot himself out of a job – like me.
‘I like Boris. He’s my friend but he’s immeasurably busy and tries really hard to keep people happy. Does that mean at times a few snakes get into the operation? Yes. When I finally was able to see him at the end of March he was visibly shocked and upset by my experience in Government.
‘I could see he wasn’t acting. I understand he spoke to the Northern Ireland office but he’s got a whole country to run. Solving the veterans issue in Northern Ireland requires absolute commitment from everybody in the process.’ He looks truly exasperated.
‘How can they say to the veterans’ minister, “It’s OK because we’re going to pardon them”? They have fundamentally missed the point of the whole thing. This isn’t a game. It’s people’s lives.’
Felicity, his wife of seven years, constituency stalwart and mother of their three daughters, agrees. ‘I had my reservations about him going into politics,’ she says. ‘He’s a freethinker. I knew it was going to be tough but not this tough. For him to call Westminster a cesspit, when he’s been sh***ing in a bag in the south of Afghanistan.’
Felicity is not a coarse woman but she is truly livid. She is sitting on a stool at their kitchen island and her foot works back and forth.
‘Darling, you mustn’t get emotional, they’re not worth it,’ Johnny says. Felicity, who is 41 today, is furious on her husband’s behalf. He is, she says, ‘the best person I know’. She was feeding their ten-month-old daughter Audrey on Tuesday evening when she learned on Twitter he had been sacked.
‘They hadn’t even given him a chance to phone his wife,’ she says. ‘When he did call to say, “I’ve been sacked”, I said, “I know, I’ve seen it on Twitter.’’’
Within a few minutes, the chief whip texted Johnny to say he was being relieved of his responsibilities and boasted to the next door Government whip’s office, ‘I’ve just sacked Johnny Mercer’
When she and Johnny realised a fortnight ago he had no choice but to resign and support the veterans from the back benches, they were determined he would do so ‘with integrity’. He wanted to announce his resignation from the despatch box on Wednesday as the Overseas Operation Bill he had championed to protect veterans in Afghanistan and Iraq finished passing through Parliament. Quickly, formally and without fuss.
Determined not to ‘ambush’ those with whom he’d worked, Johnny informed Boris Johnson of his decision on Monday and his boss, defence secretary Ben Wallace, and whip Leo Doherty on Tuesday. Within three hours, Downing Street leaked he was on the brink of resigning as they set out to shape the news agenda.
‘It’s called “the grid” and the special advisers try to control it. It’s not about reacting to events and leadership. It’s a game and these guys, who are essentially unemployable outside politics, decide what the news is on any given day,’ says Johnny.
‘They sort of laze around with their feet on the desks, with lots of self-confidence, an abrasive manner towards the civil servants, and absolutely zero respect for people who’ve actually gone out and won seats for the Conservative Party and come here because they actually believe in something.
‘I remember in January 2020 we had a bit of a spike in veteran suicides. I’d try and meet every bereaved widow and family. There was help available for these guys, but it is very hard to understand where it is and how to access it. I really wanted to go out and talk about what was available, but was repeatedly told it wasn’t part of the agenda. The Today programme had phoned me up asking me on.
Today Johnny’s whip, Leo Doherty, has his job while Mr Wallace is taking ownership of his Overseas Operations Bill
‘I remember pleading with the director of communications [then Lee Cain, Dominic Cummings’ right-hand man] saying, “Please just let me go out and say something about veteran suicide so they know where to turn.”
‘He said, “The Prime Minister specifically asked me to tell you not to do the Today programme tomorrow.” I knew at the time it was b******s and I asked the PM directly about it later. But my die was cast. Veterans were committing suicide at a faster rate than usual and the Government is blocking me from speaking to them – that is clearly unsustainable.’
Johnny was attending a debate in the Commons at 7pm on Tuesday evening when he was summoned to the office of chief whip Mark Spencer.
‘He said the Prime Minister wanted me to resign immediately for grandstanding to journalists on this Northern Ireland issue.
‘I said, “Name me one journalist I’ve spoken to about this.” They couldn’t. I said, “You’ve actually leaked it and now you’re trying to bully me out of government and I’m not going anywhere. I will resign tomorrow and you simply aren’t going to bully me.”
‘He said, “Resign now and you can have a really nice letter from the Prime Minister.” I was a bit rude about that. I said, “If you want me to leave you’re going to have to sack me right now.” There was a pause and he just looked at the floor like a little boy. I said, “Right, I’m off.”’
Johnny stands up, his jaw is firmly set and you know jolly well those old soldiers couldn’t want for a better friend in court today
Within a few minutes, the chief whip texted Johnny to say he was being relieved of his responsibilities and boasted to the next door Government whip’s office, ‘I’ve just sacked Johnny Mercer.’
‘When I read the text I was angry,’ says Johnny. ‘Then I laughed – you have to. It was captured by a cameraman for Sky News who just happened to be there at 7pm on a Tuesday evening – it was a complete set-up. Sack me then get someone to film my reaction. For a party and government I’ve poured my heart and soul into, that was nice. I knew they were pathetic but not this pathetic.’
Today Johnny’s whip, Leo Doherty, has his job while Mr Wallace is taking ownership of his Overseas Operations Bill.
‘I just felt completely alone in government, like I was a different breed and didn’t get it,’ he says. ‘Why else would you go into parliament other than to fight? Just to keep a seat warm, be an MP, get a nice ministerial office and have everyone call you, “Yes minister”? What’s the point?
‘I’m away from my young kids. I’m away from my wife. I live on my own in London. It’s crap but I’m there because I want to get things done.’
‘I remember I sat down with a couple of senior ministers [a few days after he had been appointed veterans’ minister] and said, “Boris Johnson is absolutely committed to ending the issues in Northern Ireland. He wants me to look at it.” They said, “Well, he’s going to have to tell us that then.”’
Felicity’s eyes flash in fury. ‘He’s gutted because the people who he thought were onside when he took this job haven’t done what they said they were going to do. Nothing’s going to stop this trial now.’
‘Darling,’ he says, ‘I will make sure those people care about these soldiers in Northern Ireland as much as they care about being popular in the polls.’
Johnny stands up, his jaw is firmly set and you know jolly well those old soldiers couldn’t want for a better friend in court today.
Will convicted Troubles soldiers be pardoned?
By Glen Keogh
Northern Ireland veterans convicted of crimes relating to Troubles shootings could be pardoned under plans being considered by the Government, sacked former minister Johnny Mercer has revealed.
In an explosive interview with the Mail, Mr Mercer said a part of him ‘died’ when he discovered two weeks ago that senior figures are looking at powers to ‘reduce sentences or grant mercy’ to convicted veterans.
He reiterated the sentiment expressed in his resignation letter last week that the Government has ‘failed’ in its promise to former troops who served in Northern Ireland.
Two ex-paratroopers, known as Soldiers A and C, face trial in Belfast today accused of the murder of official IRA commander Joe McCann in 1972.
Northern Ireland veterans convicted of crimes relating to Troubles shootings could be pardoned under plans being considered by the Government, sacked former minister Johnny Mercer (pictured) has revealed
It is the first prosecution of British soldiers in relation to Troubles shootings since the Good Friday Agreement.
Hundreds of ex-servicemen fear being hauled to court for incidents dating back up to 50 years. Many were investigated at the time, only for cases to be reopened by ‘legacy’ units of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which is examining all 3,000-plus deaths. The use of royal pardons for those convicted of criminal offences is often reserved for exceptional or historical cases, such as codebreaker Alan Turing.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Office said: ‘The Government has been clear it will bring forward legislation to address the legacy of the Troubles which focuses on reconciliation, delivers for victims and ends the cycle of investigations.’