Junior defence minister Johnny Mercer resigned from Boris Johnson’s cabinet on Tuesday. A former army captain, he is furious that the “Overseas Operations Bill” to protect army veterans from prosecution won’t apply to soldiers who served in Northern Ireland during the Troubles.
The big looming issue is the trial of Soldier F - the only living paratrooper being held responsible for the shooting dead of 13 Catholic civil rights protesters in Derry on 30 January 1972, by the 1st battalion of the Parachute Regiment. Their live rounds wounded 26 others, one of whom died later.
Was this clever timing on Mercer’s part? Or quite the opposite? Because just the night before, while everyone was talking about football thanks to the Superleague scandal, BBC2 broadcast a documentary about Derry City Football Club.
And there it was, in full colour, to give context to the history of this unique club: the brutal footage of what the British army did that day. You saw the blood of young, unarmed civilians staining the street red.
The film recalled the real cause of the so-called “Troubles”. The denial of the right to vote in local elections to 80% of the Catholic poor, rooted in discrimination against them in all walks of life, in a rigged unionist state.
And “unionist”, as the recent riots this Easter reminded everyone, means keeping Northern Ireland’s union with Britain, against reunion with the rest of Ireland. This film showed, however, that in 1985, Derry City Football Club, as part of the Irish League, de facto rubbed out the border with the South - at least as far as football was concerned!
That said, it’s not for nothing that the Catholic citizens of Britain’s oldest colony sought common cause with black civil rights protesters in the USA in the 1960s and 1970s. Or that these two “common causes” remain unresolved up until today.
Just as the reasons for George Floyd’s murder are not sorted by the trial of a single white cop, so the legacy of Ireland’s sectarian divisions will not be sorted by trying single British soldiers 50 years after the event. Mercer, who is a reactionary and has dubious motives, is right, but for the wrong reasons. Who gave the orders? Who sent the troops into Ireland? Who maintains this divided state?
Holding to account those who are responsible will not be achieved through the same system whose laws gave the perpetrators permission to kill in the first place. That system has to be overthrown. There is no other way to achieve permanent change. And that will only be possible through the action of a united working class, across today’s borders and across all racial, ethnic, and religious divisions.