When then-Chief Minister Ralph O’Neal and his administration successfully acquired BVI House in July 2002 to set up the BVI London Office, it was with a clear understanding that the Virgin Islands’ national interests had grown to a point where the territory needed a permanent diplomatic presence in the United Kingdom and Europe that would also serve as a diplomatic gateway to the rest of the world.
Over the past two decades, the BVI London Office has served the government and people of the VI very well. Its primary functions have been to: maintain the VI’s relations with the key institutions within the UK political system, including the UK government, UK Parliament and local council governments; diplomatically engage the EU, Commonwealth and countries represented in London’s diplomatic corps; advance the VI’s economic interests in regard to financial services, tourism, trade and investment; and support VI students and VI citizens in the UK and Europe.
The office’s finest hour came in 2017 when it coordinated and led the local government’s initial international crisis response to Hurricane Irma after the Category 5 storm devastated the territory, knocking out communications and leaving the islands cut off from the outside world. The BVI London Office worked in conjunction with BVI House Asia, the external offices of the BVI Financial Services Commission and BVI Tourist Board, and VI government officials operating outside the territory, to respond to the disaster and engage with then-UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, other UK ministers, and senior UK public officers on the mobilisation of humanitarian assistance to the islands. During that emergency period, the BVI London Office was the VI’s voice internationally. Thereafter, the office continued to mobilise support for the territory through cooperation with the UK, EU, Commonwealth, United Nations, World Bank and Caribbean Community.
The BVI London Office has also been instrumental in the government’s efforts to protect the financial services industry, especially after the release of the Panama Papers in 2016. The office played a pivotal role in the negotiations led by then-Premier Dr. Orlando Smith that secured an initial settlement between the overseas territories and the UK government on public registers of beneficial ownership. In 2018, the BVI London Office took the jurisdiction’s fight all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office at No. 10 Downing Street after the UK government subsequently reversed its policy.
In the EU, the office successfully co-chaired with the European Commission the EU-OCT Financial Services Partnership Working Party between 2014 and 2018, facilitating policy dialogue on international tax, among other things. This culminated in the BVI London Office also co-chairing a high-level dialogue on tax blacklisting between the EU, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the overseas countries and territories (OCTs) in 2018.
In terms of international leadership, between 2014-2015 the BVI London Office served as chair of the OCT Association (OCTA) in Brussels, during which time it secured the participation of EU European Commissioner for International Development Neven Mimica at the 15th OCT-EU Forum hosted by Dr. Smith in the VI in 2015. The outcome has resulted in the VI’s receipt of more than $3 million in development assistance from the EU. The BVI London Office also served as chair of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) in London in 2016 and successfully led the OTs’ negotiations with the UK government to establish a UK-OTs Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit in 2017.
Beyond the UK and Europe, the BVI London Office has directly supported the strengthening of engagement between the VI and the United Nations. From 2016-2018, the office represented the VI as a vice chair of UN ECLAC’s Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC). On numerous other occasions, the office has also provided representation on the VI government’s delegations to UN meetings, including the UN Oceans Conference (2017), the COP21 Paris Climate Change Meeting (2015), the UN Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (2014), UNFCCC COP19 (2013), and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP 11 (2012). Notably, following the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the office represented the VI at a special meeting at UN Headquarters in New York between the foreign ministers of the UK, France and the Netherlands, as well as the UN assistant secretary-general for disaster risk reduction and other parties affected by the storms.
In its capacity as a consular office and cultural centre, the office has been a gathering place and refuge for students and residents over the years. It has also advocated for greater benefits within the UK for VI students. In 2021, the BVI London Office worked in collaboration with other OTs to successfully lobby the UK government to allow OT students to apply for UK loans for undergraduate studies. In earlier years, the office also helped UKOTA lobby for home fees (i.e., in-state tuition) for OT students at UK universities, which came into effect in 2007. In terms of consular support, it is highly notable that in 2020, the office played a critical role in the evacuation of students back to the VI during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdown.
Finally, BVI House is also the location of the BVI Tourist Board’s UK office, with which the BVI London Office has had a complementary working relationship in advancing the economic interests of the territory and responding to emergencies such as the 2017 hurricanes.
I pay tribute to the late Mr. O’Neal for his vision in acquiring BVI House and establishing the BVI London Office over two decades ago. At the official opening ceremony in September 2002, he described the office as a “milestone in the continued development of the territory, of which all British Virgin Islanders should be proud.”
He added that the office would “promote all the interests of the territory, including tourism, investment promotions, financial services and training, as well as serve as a centre for BVI students studying in the United Kingdom. We believe that not only is the purchase of this property a sound investment financially, but a vitally important investment in the way in which we are able to represent our economy and our interests in the world at large in the future. The office will provide in London a day-to-day focus of a kind we have not had before.”
I also acknowledge all of the people who have had the privilege of serving in the capacity of director of the BVI London Office/VI Representative in the UK and EU, including Bowen Wells (director pro tem, 2002-03); Lorna Smith (director, 2004-05); Hadassah Ward (interim director, 2005-06); Dawn Smith (director, 2006-09); Kedrick Malone (director, 2009-14); myself (director, 2014-18); Elise Donovan (interim director, August-December 2018); Dr. Sandra Besson (acting director, June-July 2018 and January-June 2019); and Tracy Bradshaw (acting director, July 2019-present).
Current members of the office’s staff include Siobhan Flax (deputy director), Nicholas Jeria (senior consular and protocol officer), Ola Tunde Lana (facilities and security officer), Kenneskie Manning (accountant), and Yvonne Grant (consular officer). Former members of the staff include Reginald Hodge, Geraldine Ritter-Freeman, Luce Hodge-Smith, Lizette George, Lizette Vanterpool, June Smith-Bramble, Virginia O’Neal, Avril Henry, Linda Varlack, Emily George, Aliston Simmonds, Mitchelynne Bassue and Brian McKarkiel-Powell.
May the BVI London Office continue to serve the government and people of the VI with excellence in advancing the national interests of the territory!
Mr. Wheatley is a former director of the BVI London Office/VI Representative to the UK and EU (2014-2018).