STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE DR. HON. NATALIO D. WHEATLEY
ON THE 44TH REGULAR MEETING OF THE CONFERENCE OF THE HEADS OF GOVERNMENT OF THE CARIBBEAN COMMUNITY (CARICOME) AND GOVERNANCE REFORM MATTERS
MONDAY 20TH FEBRUARY 2023
Good afternoon to the people of the Virgin Islands and I apologise for the delay.
Firstly, let me give my sincere condolences to the family and friends of two Virgin Islanders who sadly passed recently. Mr. Elihu Rymer, was a former teacher, permanent secretary, businessman, talk show host, and civic minded patriotic Virgin Islander. Mr. Patrick Harrigan dedicated his whole life to the development of sports in the Territory. He was a legendary sportsman; he represented the BVI on many occasions and he was an employee of Youth Affairs and Sports, and invested in young people through programmes like The Grasshoppers. I honour their memory, and may their souls rest in eternal peace.
In keeping with my commitment to keep the people of the Virgin Islands abreast of government matters, I am updating the public on my attendance at the 44th Regular Meeting of the Conference of the Heads of Government of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and to also provide clarification on a few governance reform matters.
From the 15th – 17th of February, I joined other CARICOM Heads of Government in the Bahamas where we addressed a number of issues. Among other things, we discussed the unfortunate deteriorating situation in Haiti and the urgent need to strengthen security on the ground and restore overall stability. It was particularly helpful that Canadian Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Justin Trudeau was present for some of the discussions. He reaffirmed Canada’s commitment to assisting Haiti in partnership with CARICOM. Toward this end, a Haitian stakeholder meeting is being planned in Jamaica, while another meeting on security and law and order will be held in Haiti in the very near future.
The deteriorating situation in Haiti is very important for the Virgin Islands as we ourselves continue to see a steady stream of Haitians fleeing their country and arriving on our shores through human trafficking or drifting ashore by boat or raft. Our law enforcement agencies, security personnel and other public officers are all doing their best to appropriately respond to these arrivals, including asylum cases and repatriations. In the meantime, we are doing our best to look after the welfare of our Haitian brothers and sisters who face an unfortunate set of circumstances. A regional and hemispheric response to the collapse of law and order in Haiti is urgently needed, which CARICOM, Canada and other partners are working on. My Administration will remain engaged with CARICOM as things develop to help inform our own local response to handling the cases of Haitians who have ended up on our shores after fleeing their home.
Ladies and gentlemen, CARICOM also discussed the Virgin Islands’ situation in the aftermath of the crisis and political turbulence that gripped the Territory nearly 10 months ago. I provided my colleague Heads of Government with an update on the progress of governance reforms and where things stand regarding the United Kingdom’s (UK’s) Order in Council in reserve for direct rule of the Virgin Islands if triggered. Of course, CARICOM remains against the Order in Council which they see as a blunt colonial instrument.
During our exchanges, delegations to the meeting recounted their direct interventions on behalf of the Virgin Islands in early May last year. Among other things, the Prime Ministers and Ministers of certain Caribbean countries had warned UK diplomats and the former UK Overseas Territories Minister Rt. Hon. Amanda Million MP against imposing direct rule on the people of the Virgin Islands. Delegations also recounted the UN decolonisation meeting in Saint Lucia from 11th-13th May 2022 when CARICOM Member States, OECS Member States and Representatives of Overseas Territories publicly expressed their opposition to UK direct rule over our Territory.
As you will recall, my Special Envoy and Government’s interlocutor during the crisis, Mr. Benito Wheatley, delivered a statement at that meeting in which he also urged the UK not to suspend the constitution. He also held a meeting with a senior UK diplomat in the region who informed him that internal efforts were being made to persuade London against proceeding with direct rule because of the political implications in the Caribbean. We of course welcomed this intervention. This is why I am highly disappointed by the untrue statement made by Governor John Rankin last week about the Virgin Islands having the option to go to the polls during the crisis. I can only assume that he said this to deflect criticism of him by the person who asked him a related question. I will address this shortly.
To wrap up on CARICOM, I am pleased with the position of the Heads of Government on the situation in the Virgin Islands which is included in the meeting’s communique. They have called on the UK to remove the Order in Council in reserve which they agree has no place in democratic governance. The Heads of Government also reaffirmed CARICOM’s commitment to supporting the Virgin Islands at the United Nations (UN) where for the past four years Virgin Islands representatives have continued to make representation on our rights as a people.
Ladies and gentleman, I would now like to turn to the Governor’s press conference last week on governance reforms.
As I mentioned earlier, I am very disappointed by Governor Rankin’s untrue statement about the option to go to the polls during the crisis last year. The Governor knows full well, as he himself has previously said, that the UK Government had to be persuaded not to impose direct rule in the period following his early public release of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report on 30th April 2022. Minister Milling who traveled to the Virgin Islands for crisis talks, made it abundantly clear before she left the Territory that she needed an initial commitment by the Government to implement the COI Report recommendations, except A1, because there was very little to time to make a case to UK Ministers not to immediately suspend the constitution.
It is extremely important for the public to know that from the first day of Minister Milling’s visit right up until the departure of her advisors at the end of that week, that discussions had been ongoing between government of officials from the Virgin Islands and UK to persuade the UK not to immediately suspend the constitution. The Government of National Unity was sworn in on 5th May and these discussions continued thereafter. In fact, we were asked to submit a proposal on implementation of the COI Report Recommendations under continued democratic governance by 6th May, which posed a big challenge for us due to time constraints. We were reminded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) that there was precious little time to make the case to then Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and UK Ministers to not impose direct rule on the Territory and that an initial proposal by the Government of the Virgin Islands was urgently needed.
A proposal was first submitted on 8th May which was not accepted due to FCDO concerns that UK Ministers would not see it as strong enough and would decide to proceed with immediate suspension. A revised initial proposal was then submitted a few days later, but no guarantees were given that the constitution would not be immediately suspended. Nevertheless, we continued to engage with the UK Government on refining the proposal to try to find a way forward. In fact, in developing the Framework for Implementation of the COI Report Recommendations and Other Reforms, the UK insisted on including a provision on no early elections. In the final framework document agreed between the Virgin Islands and UK, you can find this provision on page 3 under the section on Cabinet. This is also another reason I am disappointed by the Governor’s statement that there was an option to go to the polls during the crisis.
To underscore the point about limited time to prevent the immediate suspension of the constitution, I would like to read an excerpt from Minister Milling’s letter to me on the question of suspension. And I quote:
“As we discussed in May, the COI findings are shocking. The Commissioner has identified serious impropriety and gross failures of governance by elected officials. It is clear that the people of the British Virgin Islands have been badly served across successive Administrations.
The Report makes 48 recommendations to address underlying issues including urgent reforms, investigations and medium-term measures. Together, these will go a long way to delivering the deep change which I believe the people of the BVI desire and deserve. But, as you have acknowledged, they will not be enough in themselves, with successful reform requiring further measures. So I am pleased that your framework includes swift and full implementation of both the 48 recommendations and also a set of commitments beyond these.
This framework therefore represents a strong implementation plan with a strict and comprehensive set of milestones that need to be met. If they are, it will help to protect against corruption and ensure the return of good governance.
As this is the case, the UK Government will not IMMEDIATELY implement the COI’s 49th [recommendation], for the temporary suspension of those parts of the Constitution by which areas of government are assigned to elected representatives, and the assumption of related powers by the Governor. It will instead look to the implementation of your framework, with appropriate Governor and UK support, to deliver the reforms which are needed.” End quote.
For the avoidance of doubt, I have instructed the Government Information Service (GIS) to publish the letter in its entirety, alongside this statement, so that the public can clearly see that there was no option to go to the polls as Governor Rankin stated last week. In fact, it was the UK who insisted that we agree to no early elections, which as I mentioned is a commitment in the framework document. It was the Government of National Unity and our proposal that convinced the UK Government not to immediately suspend the constitution as stated in the letter.
Last week some members of our community were too quick to give the Governor the benefit of the doubt after his comments and to call judgment on the Government of National Unity for their own personal reasons.
Ladies and gentleman, I want to be clear. The Government of National Unity comprised of the elected representatives of the Virgin Islands Party (VIP), National Democratic Party (NDP) and Progressive Virgin Islands Movement (PVIM) came together to save democracy in this Territory, which our foreparents worked so hard to achieve. The formation of the Government was welcomed by the UK and seen as the best option to deliver the implementation of the COI Report recommendations through collective responsibility by all the major political parties.
I again want to thank the members of the Government of National Unity for their sacrifice and hard work over the past 10 months, including:
Deputy Premier Hon. Kye Rymer;
Minister of Education Hon. Sharie DeCastro;
Minister of Health and Social Development Hon. Marlon Penn;
Minister of Natural Resources and Labour Hon. Melvin “Mitch” Turnbull;
Junior Minister for Tourism Hon. Alvera Maduro Caines;
Junior Minister for Trade, Agriculture and Fisheries Hon. Shereen Flax-Charles;
Deputy Speaker Hon. Neville Smith;
9th District Representative Hon. Vincent Wheatley;
4th District Representative Hon. Mark Vanterpool; and
Territorial At Large Representative Hon. Carvin Malone
Together we have done our best to drive reform while continuing to steer the recovery, development and growth of this Territory. We are in a better place and should be proud, even as some of us go into elections under our respective party banners.
I also want to thank all of the hardworking public servants without whom the work involved could not get done.
We must all do our best to be united in spite of politics and not succumb to the politics of division and destabilization. I know that we have challenges, but suspension of the constitution is not the answer, and I urge any of our remaining brothers and sisters who still subscribe to that idea to reject it entirely.
We must always protect our freedom. We must always fight for our freedom. And we must never give up our freedom just because someone else recommends it or because mistakes have been made. It is we the people of these islands who must continue to assume responsibility for fixing the things that need to be fixed in our society. This responsibility must not be pawned off on anyone else. It is our job. Governance reform is all about us as a people making things better for ourselves and future generations of Virgin Islanders. We are building a model democracy that will enable us to meet our highest aspirations as a people.
I want to wrap up with just a few words on the progress of implementation of governance reforms. I want to thank Governor Rankin for his acknowledgement of the progress thus. This is appreciated and helpful. However, in terms of his criticisms, I want to clarify a few points. First, in terms of deadlines, it is very important for the public to be aware that both the elected arm of Government and the Governor have not met all their deadlines and will have to shift accordingly. Both sides have missed deadlines for good reasons. I do not want anyone to get the impression that it is only the elected Government that requires extensions. The Governor does as well. It is too easy to get the impression from the Governor’s press conference last week that missing deadlines primarily refers to the elected arm of Government.
My other point concerns the Police Bill. Based on the Governor’s press conference last week, the public may also be under the impression that the Bill was somehow delayed by the elected arm of Government. This is absolutely not the case. Following earlier consultations on the Bill and thereafter, I have asked over and over for the Bill to come forward. It was not delayed because of us. We are not to blame. What is needed at this stage is proper consultation on the elements of the Bill that the public has not had any input on. This bill will not be passed until the public and the members of the House of Assembly are comfortable that it does not trample on our human rights and civil liberties .
I want to be perfectly clear. I do believe that reform must be delivered in a timely fashion and that we must proceed swiftly. However, this cannot be at the expense of non-consultation with the public. This is not a box ticking exercise. I am committed to public consultations because reforms must reflect the views and aspirations of the people of the Virgin Islands.
My final point is that there are areas of the Public Service where serious capacity constraints exist which have slowed down some reform efforts. The Immigration Department needs even more support and we are exploring how capacity can be boosted and technical expertise secured to help overcome the current capacity constraints faced by the Department.
Ladies and gentleman, thank you for your attention and I am happy to take any questions you have.