Why does Boris Johnson keep making impossible promises on Northern Ireland?

The Prime Minister’s pledge to exempt British soldiers from prosecution was as unworkable as his vow to avoid an Irish Sea border.

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Boris Johnson’s government is “the most distrustful, awful environment I've ever worked in” where “almost nobody tells the truth”, Tory MP Johnny Mercer declared after being sacked before he could resign as veterans minister on the evening of 20 April. He had planned to resign after realising Johnson’s pledge to protect former British soldiers alleged to have committed crimes in Northern Ireland during the Troubles from prosecution would not be delivered. 

It is, frankly, astonishing that it took Mercer until now to work this out. The pledge, a Conservative manifesto commitment and Queen’s Speech promise that has long been the focus of campaigns by Mercer and newspapers such as the Sun, is simultaneously incendiary and unworkable – a heady cocktail that means the government would almost certainly never deliver what Mercer wants. 

​​​​​The whole thing is reminiscent of the government’s line on the Irish Sea border created by the Brexit deal. For months, Johnson insisted no such border would ever manifest, a baffling promise that appeared impossible to fulfil or reconcile with the deal we could all read, signed in black and white. Then the government threatened to break international law in order to avoid that border (before retreating) and now, lo and behold, we have an Irish Sea border. 

The government’s repeated promises over Northern Ireland veterans are similar. Aside from the (literally dozens of) political and practical problems presented by the pledge, exempting British soldiers from prosecution for crimes allegedly committed during the Troubles would be in contradiction of the UK’s human rights commitments as a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights, a convention affirmed in the Good Friday Agreement. That means attempts to enforce the provision would either break international law in an incendiary and inevitably short-lived way, or they would be quietly superseded and therefore render the British legislation meaningless. 

It should have been clear to Mercer all along that this pledge could not be fulfilled. But his display of anger is revealing of a pattern in Johnson's government. Mercer's successor as veterans minister, Leo Docherty, has repeated the promise of legislation on this issue in “the coming weeks”, and it remains impossible to see how the pledge can be meaningfully enacted. 

Johnson’s government keeps making wild promises it can’t deliver on, especially with regard to Northern Ireland. The promises alienate nationalists, many unionists, unaligned voters and victims’ groups in Northern Ireland, while the failure to honour them will alienate the Sun, the Telegraph, veterans’ groups, other unionists and a swathe of the Conservative base, as in the case of Mercer. It’s not clear what the game plan is here.

[see also: A hundred years of trouble: How an outburst of violence exposed Northern Ireland as a failed state]

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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