News Americas, LONDON, England, Tues. July 5, 2011: Ever so slowly the Turks and Caicos Islands are on their way back to having an elected government and a full constitution.
Ignored by much of the media, a constitutional conference took place in London on June 15/16 that will result in the adaptation of the islands’ 2006 constitution that Britain partially suspended in March 2009 when it imposed direct rule.
The conference resulted in some of the more questionable aspects of a first draft being set aside and a revised text being produced that offers the possibility of a return to elected governance by sometime before the end of 2012.
This was largely achieved through the intervention of British Ministers who decided to overrule earlier advice from some UK officials, who many islanders regard as politically insensitive.
Although there is still much to be done – not least the bringing of prosecutions against former politicians, officials and investors who are alleged to have been corrupt on a staggering scale – the conference avoided the collapse that had seemed imminent as it began.
Then, even those political leaders who had previously given qualified support to some of the British government’s actions were, in private, considering the possibility of walking out if there was no give on Britain’s part on a number of key issues.
In the end, however, political leaders from the Islands gave a largely positive reaction to the outcome of talks.
“Given the point where we started from and certainly coming out of the recent history where the Constitution was suspended and the legislature disbanded …. we have made some great strides in direct talks with UK Ministers”, the leader of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), Douglas Parnell, was reported as saying.
In contrast the Progressive National Party (PNP) leader Clayton Greene questioned the integrity of the UK government by claiming that ‘most of the decisions on the major issues had already been taken before the TCI delegation got to London’.
Both the PDM and PNP had refused to take part in earlier consultations with the UK’s Constitutional Advisor and had repeatedly called for direct negotiation with the Ministers responsible. However, it was only after a British team of officials had held a series of public consultations in May, during which there had been widespread public opposition towards the Draft Constitution, that party leaders and others were invited to London to meet with Henry Bellingham, the UK Minister of State responsible for the UK’s Overseas Territories.
Objections before the conference had centred on provisions that increased the power of the British Governor over elected officials, allowing a non-belonger to be deputy governor, changing the way in which non-citizens could obtain Belongership, and to significant alterations to the electoral system.
In London, Britain agreed a number of concessions. These included dropping the proposal for a mixed member proportional electoral system, retaining the first-past-the-post system, and stipulating that the Deputy Governor must be a Turks and Caicos Islander.
In response to concerns raised throughout the consultation process about the role and reserve powers of the Governor, the conference established that the governor was legally accountable for his or her actions and must consult UK ministers before exercising reserve powers.
Other important concessions were agreed relating to citizenship. These included removing the provisions on Belongership by right, agreeing on the inclusion in the Constitution of the minimum conditions for the granting of Belongership and replacing the term Belonger with another expression.
However, some issues such as the right to trial by jury in all cases were not agreed to by the British Government. This measure according to the UK will provide flexibility where it appears to the presiding judge that trial by jury would not meet the interests of justice.
The UK also inserted language that will limit future ppremiers to serving no more than two consecutive four-year terms of office; a decision endorsed by the British Foreign Secretary when he joined the conference.
While what has been proposed still need to be considered in more detail by Islanders, they go a significant way towards offsetting the growing hostility within the islands and in the wider Caribbean and other overseas territories about the treatment of the islands. In recent months there had been a sense that some British officials were more intent on control, than the return of the islands to an honest elected government with a popular mandate.
Having said this there is still much to be done. The islands’ economy is in a parlous state and it needs to rapidly be stimulated if a future elected government is not to be faced with a bankrupt economy. Faith needs to return among international investors. The Islands’ name and brand needs to be restored so that it ceases to be synonymous in the international media with corruption. And there has to be a concerted effort to address the islands’ increasing crime rate.
There also needs to be greater encouragement of the democratic process by the British Government and the UK Parliament if there is to be a return to good government. It is surprising that neither the Westminster Foundation for Democracy or the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association have been unable to help in this respect while the Islands’ constitution remains suspendered.
Beyond this it is far from clear how in future the island’s might in the context of the constitution choose independence if a clear majority so wished. While it is understandable that talk of sovereignty comes most vocally from those who may be prosecuted, experience suggests that the absence of clarity or discussion of this issue, may be storing up trouble for future British governments.
What is striking is that much of the progress that has been made in bringing about a solution that is acceptable to most islanders has been as a result of the political initiatives and heightened awareness.
Without the visits to London by in particular the PDM leader, Mr. Parnall, and his meetings with UK Parliamentarians and others able to engage in a political dialogue with British Ministers, it is unlikely that the islands’ would be on the way back to constitutionality on a basis acceptable to most islanders.
Both Mr Bellingham and the new generation of island leaders now need to pay political attention to making the Turks and Caicos economically viable if future elected governments are to be democratic accountable and successful.
David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org.