Why does Labour agree with Johnny Mercer on prosecution of Troubles veterans?

Labour's confused view on protections for British soldiers who served during the Troubles demonstrates a bigger problem with the party's line on defence.

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What is Labour’s policy on military veterans alleged to have committed crimes during the Troubles? It's all for exempting them from prosecution, apparently.

Johnny Mercer, the Conservative minister for veterans, resigned (or, to nitpick, was sacked for planning to resign) yesterday (20 April) over the government’s failure so far to fulfil a pledge to protect British soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles from prosecution, by not yet extending to them the protections that will be given to soldiers serving abroad by the forthcoming Overseas Operations Bill. The government has promised “equal treatment” for Troubles and overseas veterans, but has yet to introduce legislation to that effect.

"We have abandoned our people in a way I simply cannot reconcile," Mercer wrote in his resignation letter, claiming that "veterans are being sectioned, drinking themselves to death, and dying well before their time" because of the government's inaction.

Labour didn't have an official line on this issue, but one could have easily imagined what it might be simply by considering by how controversial and impractical the proposal to protect Troubles veterans is. Concerns have been expressed that any such legislation would conflict with the government’s human rights commitments in the Good Friday Agreement and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the UK is a signatory, and would either end up applying the law unequally to paramilitaries and the British army, or that it would amount to an amnesty on all Troubles crimes, which no one in Northern Irish politics wants. 

Yet Labour's first actual hint of a view on the matter has prompted surprise and outrage, including within the parliamentary party and among members of the shadow cabinet. Labour’s shadow defence secretary, John Healey, quote-tweeted Johnny Mercer’s resignation and declared that Mercer had exposed the government’s weakness: “Strong on pledges, weak on delivery. Boris Johnson has ‘abandoned’ the military veterans he promised to support and protect.” Or in other words, Labour now agrees with Johnny Mercer.

According to a well-placed source, other shadow cabinet members “had words”, which resulted in Healey clarifying his position in his statement on the Overseas Operations Bill, emphasising that his comments relate to other broken pledges for veterans, not those on Northern Ireland.

But that clarity is yet to come from the very top. A spokesperson for Keir Starmer repeated Healey’s line on a call with Westminster’s journalists this afternoon, stating that Mercer’s resignation “speaks to a wider failure to properly support veterans”, and declining to clarify the Labour leader’s position on prosecution of Northern Irish veterans.  

This is an instance where an opposition could easily have sat back and let the Conservatives tear themselves apart: the government has made a very controversial promise that it can’t keep, on an issue that many of its core voters and a prominent (now former) minister care passionately about.

Labour's confused position on Northern Ireland veterans also illustrates a wider problem with its approach to defence. Its effort to strike a patriotic, pro-veteran tone in this policy area has led multiple talented MPs to resign from the Labour front bench, after the party whipped its MPs to abstain on both the Overseas Operations Bill, which curbs the scope of prosecution of British troops over crimes committed in combat; and on the "spycops" bill, which human rights campaigners are concerned would allow undercover police officers to commit human rights violations. 

Labour has now backtracked from its apparent agreement with Johnny Mercer on Troubles veterans. But the simultaneously confused and controversial position on Northern Ireland demonstrates the difficulty with its approach to defence. The tough, pro-veteran line will only take Labour so far when it fundamentally differs with the Conservatives over human rights and international law, and there's a hard limit to how much of that rhetoric many of the party's activists, MPs and shadow cabinet ministers can stand. 

[see also: Nadia Whittome: “We either confront the culture war directly, or we lose it”]


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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