At a time when the Virgin Islands’ relationship with the United Kingdom is increasingly unpredictable and fraught with tensions, we are glad that the government is launching the long-promised constitutional review.
Under the traditional practice of reviewing the Constitution about once every 10 years, this exercise was due in 2017, but leaders say it got delayed by the hurricanes that year.
This month, Premier Andrew Fahie finally announced that a commission would start meeting with the public soon during a six-month review process. We welcome this much-needed dialogue, and urge leaders to fill the commission not with political cronies but with experts who will fight for the territory’s broader interests in keeping with the precedent set by the commissioners who negotiated the 2007 Constitution.
To our thinking, the ultimate goal of each constitutional review should be to seek greater autonomy while laying a solid groundwork for the territory’s eventual independence.
But this goal will not be achieved by potshots and empty rhetoric designed to score political points. It will be achieved only by the hard work of sustained community dialogue about what the territory wants for its future and how to get there.
Currently, independence is a long way off, and we believe the great majority of citizens would oppose it if a referendum were held tomorrow.
Meanwhile, the United Kingdom will likely resist turning over much more control pre-independence. To understand why, the VI should remember a root cause of UK leaders’ reluctance to grant more autonomy: Under the current political system, the UK is ultimately responsible for the territory, and if the VI falls into financial ruin through irresponsible fiscal decisions of the sort that are all too common here, the UK would have to bail it out.
The VI, then, should put a priority on getting its own house in order right away. The territory would be in a much stronger negotiating position heading into the constitutional discussions if it enacts the many governance reforms that the new administration has been promising since last year’s election campaigns.
The UK likely would be more willing to relinquish control to a territory with freedom-of-information legislation; a public register of legislators’ interests; a ministerial code of conduct; whistle-blower protections; an ethics law; and the like.
And even if the UK still balks, such reforms are also the way forward toward garnering the public support necessary to lead the territory toward eventual independence. Citizens are all too aware of the continued need for the watchdog role the UK plays here, and few are likely to support independence without the confidence provided by comprehensive governance reform.
In the coming constitutional review, then, the community should ask itself hard questions about why the VI remains a colony in the age of so-called “post-colonialism,” and it should weigh the pros and cons of that arrangement. Then it should decide collectively whether it wishes to move toward independence as we suggest.
If the answer is yes, the community should pinpoint the obstacles to achieving that goal and lay out a roadmap and timeline for surmounting each of them. If the answer is no, the community should decide what it wants instead and how to get there.
Then it should move forward.