We welcome Governor John Rankin, who takes office at a time when the territory’s relationship with the United Kingdom is as strained as it has been in recent memory.
He has a full plate. In the coming months and years, he will need to call on all of his skills, experience and diplomacy to help lead the territory through some of the most daunting challenges it has faced in decades.
Thankfully, he has relevant experience for the job: A lawyer by trade, he has served in various diplomatic posts since 1988, including about four years as governor of Bermuda starting in 2016.
Given the recent turmoil between the Virgin Islands government and the UK, he will need to put a priority on understanding and healing their strained relationship without compromising his important role as a check to the government’s power. He and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office must also do so without retracting or diminishing any of the constitutional advances this territory has made over the last 70 years.
Looming large over the governor’s first six months will be the commission of inquiry launched by his predecessor 11 days before Mr. Rankin took office.
Of course, he should play no role in the inquiry itself — it is an independent process guided by the commissioner — but when it ends, the spotlight will swing to him: In concert with the UK, he will be charged with deciding what to do with the commissioner’s recommendations.
The gravity of this mandate cannot be overstated. Whatever is uncovered, we urge him in advance to avoid suspending the VI’s Constitution like the UK did in the Turks and Caicos Islands from 2009 to 2012 after a similar inquiry found strong evidence of widespread corruption there.
Currently, the commission itself has considerable support in the community, but this backing is highly unlikely to extend to a colonial takeover a la TCI.
Starting now, Mr. Rankin should plan ahead, working with VI and UK leaders and public officers to devise reasoned responses to different possible inquiry outcomes.
These discussions should take into account the inquiry’s meaning for the broader UK-VI relationship as the territory prepares for a constitutional review. We wouldn’t be surprised to see the review delayed until after the inquiry, but whenever it occurs it should be a steppingstone to greater autonomy for the territory. It also should include substantial discussion of the independence question, and Mr. Rankin will need to listen closely.
In the midst of Brexit, questions will also continue to surface about broader international relations, and Mr. Rankin should advocate tirelessly that the VI and other territories be considered as the UK moves forward.
Meanwhile, he should follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by urging the VI government frequently and loudly to implement the governance reforms it has promised, like freedom-of-information legislation; a whistleblower law; a public register of legislators’ interests; a human rights commission; and others.
Mr. Rankin should also push for more transparency from the UK. Too often, UK decisions affecting the OTs are made behind closed doors without sufficient OT input. This must change. After all, transparency cannot be a one-way road.
Also troubling is the UK’s delay in signing off on legislation, including the medical marijuana bill the House of Assembly passed last year.
The UK should have in place a system to quickly review and respond to any OT laws that do not receive speedy assent. If the UK decides that it cannot agree to them for any reason after approval in Cabinet, it should offer a transparent explanation within a week or two. Extended delays in this respect are bad for the territory.
Also at the top of Mr. Rankin’s immediate priorities will be the pandemic. Here, he should follow in his predecessor’s footsteps by continuing to push for UK support like the 8,000 vaccines that are scheduled to be delivered today.
Even when the pandemic is under control, however, the work will be far from over. The territory’s economy has been decimated by Covid-19, and the border restrictions are very unlikely to be lifted before the current tourism season ends in mid-April.
This means the territory’s people and businesses will need more help, and the governor should push the VI and UK governments alike to implement effective programmes that are far more transparent than the last round of economic stimulus.
Mr. Rankin should also work to accelerate the public-sector hurricane recovery, which is far behind.
Here again, UK-VI relations come into play. Much of the recovery seems to have stalled largely because of the VI government’s very disappointing refusal to access funding through the £300 million loan guarantee offered by the UK — or to find a viable alternative.
More funding, however, is badly needed in order to accelerate recovery process under the Recovery and Development Agency and rebuild schools, libraries, fire stations, and other government buildings and infrastructure that still stand in disrepair even as Irma’s fourth anniversary looms this September.
Any new funding, we might add, would help counter the economic impact of the pandemic.
Further on, the governor will also be on board in 2023, when the VI will be required to implement a public register of company ownership. This requirement — another sore point in VI-UK relations — is likely to deal a major blow to the territory’s financial services industry, one of the two pillars of the economy.
From day one, then, the governor will need to work with UK and VI leaders to plan what comes next in this regard. Part of that effort is economic diversification. Currently, the VI leans very heavily on financial services and tourism. Other industries are needed.
Besides these immediate priorities, other issues will also require the new governor’s urgent attention, including public service reform; climate change; environmental protection; security; drugs and other crime; and governance reforms.
Ultimately, his mission is a peculiar one: He should be helping the territory prepare for the day when a UK-appointed governor is no longer needed.
We wish Mr. Rankin all the best in his new role. There is much work to be done on behalf of the people of the Virgin Islands.