The wait is over.
Governor John Rankin and Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley announced on Wednesday morning that the United Kingdom will not suspend parts of the Virgin Islands Constitution or implement direct rule for now.
Instead, the UK has accepted a proposal from the new National Unity Government to work with the UK to push through governance reforms recommended by the recent Commission of Inquiry.
“I can inform you this morning that UK ministers have agreed to the proposal submitted by the Government of National Unity,” Mr. Rankin said at a press conference. “The premier and the Government of National Unity have shown the commitment to improve governance in the BVI. And therefore, it is right that elected officials here should have the opportunity to implement the COI recommendations.”
The move follows the April 28 arrest of Premier Andrew Fahie in Miami and the release the next day of the COI report, which recommends UK direct rule for at least two years and more than 40 other steps to address potential corruption and serious dishonesty in government.
The following week, the new cross-party National Unity Government was formed on May 5 with Dr. Wheatley at the helm. Shortly thereafter, the NUG submitted a proposal to the UK to implement the COI-recommended reforms without UK direct rule.
That proposal was not made public for weeks as the VI and UK governments held closed-door discussions, but Dr. Wheatley said Wednesday that it would be published on the government’s website after the press conference.
Dr. Wheatley also announced previously that officials would be coming to each district and sister island for a series of public meetings starting June 20. Attendees will get a chance to discuss the proposal.
“The people of the Virgin Islands have a legitimate expectation that those persons who they elect to represent them and to govern the territory will do so with honesty and integrity,” the premier said on Wednesday. “The Government of National Unity remains fully committed to meeting those expectations as we usher in a new era of democratic governance to pass on to future generations. We welcome UK ministers’ agreement with our final proposal for the implementation of the COI report recommendations and other reforms, and as a government will work closely with Governor Rankin, and in the spirit of partnership with the United Kingdom, to deliver for the people of the Virgin Islands.”
To ensure that the NUG keeps its commitments for reform, the governor said, the proposal contains various conditions surrounding implementation, including a set of strict delivery milestones over an estimated period of two years.
“Regular public updates against these milestones will be provided, with each BVI government ministry and the departments providing monthly delivery reports, and I will formally assess progress every three months before sending the quarterly update to the foreign secretary in the UK,” the governor said.
If the NUG, or any subsequent government, fails to deliver any of the milestones or frustrates progress, he said, he will “take action to protect the interests of people here,” including a possible partial constitutional suspension and direct UK rule.
Order in Council
The governor added that the UK government has put in place the framework needed for direct rule through an Order in Council, which is required in order to make any changes to the VI Constitution and which would “swiftly provide me with the powers necessary to take corrective action if progress against the milestones is unsatisfactory.”
The Order in Council won’t be used if the VI government delivers on its promises, according to Mr. Rankin.
“In the meantime, I will continue to work constructively in partnership with the premier and his government with what I believe is a fair and balanced approach,” he said.
Dr. Wheatley said the proposal calls for a two-year timeline. Even though elections are constitutionally due next year, he explained, “This proposal would be binding on any future administration. And these reforms begin right away. As the governor has mentioned, they’ve already started working on making changes.”
In response to a question from the media, Mr. Rankin declined to address the prospect of public service cuts but said a “transformation of the public service” is already under way.
“I know that public servants in this territory want to be part of the reforms which are being proposed,” he added.
According to the premier, the document contains a balance of responsibilities that are either shared or divided between the governor, premier, Cabinet, ministries and House of Assembly.
He also alleged that a media outlet he didn’t name had published inaccurate reports about the plan’s contents. These inaccuracies, he said, “will be readily apparent once the final proposal is read.”
Dr. Wheatley has frequently said the coming changes will be “hard” and “painful” in some instances.
“This is our opportunity as a society to transform these Virgin Islands into a model democracy where we have better institutions, better systems, better processes, better public services, better infrastructure and an economy that delivers for all,” he said, adding, “The roles and responsibilities for implementation actually reflect collaboration and partnership by the primary actors under continued democratic governance.”
According to the premier, his government’s reform-focused proposal doesn’t mean that other projects, such as infrastructure improvements and school buildings, will be halted.
“It’s going to have to be a balance — and that we have to do what we have to do to make sure that we deliver timely reforms,” he said. “However, in some instances, we’re going to have to discontinue and cut projects, but there has to be a reprioritisation exercise that we’ll go through to see what continues and what is something that can wait until we implement these reforms.”
UK foreign secretary
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said yesterday that the new government should be given the opportunity to “demonstrate their commitment to reform” and implement the COI recommendations and the further measures the administration has proposed.
As proof that the VI is willing to cooperate, she pointed to the removal of Mr. Fahie from his role as premier, the creation of the new government, and the launch of several criminal investigations recommended in the COI report.
However, she added, “If it becomes clear that this approach is not delivering the reform the people of the BVI want and deserve, we will take action. This may require the swift implementation of the final report recommendation [of imposing direct rule].”
Mr. Rankin said yesterday that further criminal investigations may be launched, though he declined to comment further on any ongoing investigations, including those sparked by Mr. Fahie’s arrest.
He also declined to say whether he knows the identity of “Government Official Number One,” an unnamed official alleged in the United States complaint against Mr. Fahie to have facilitated drug trafficking in the territory. He also did not directly state whether he and his predecessor, Gus Jaspert, were aware that Mr. Fahie was suspected of involvement in the drug trade.
Mr. Jaspert has said he lauched the COI in part because of allegations that “the highest holders of office” were involved in cocaine trafficking, though he did not name Mr. Fahie specifically.
“Mr. Jaspert set up the Commission of Inquiry precisely in order that such issues should be investigated,” Mr. Rankin said. “And, sadly, the facts suggest what we all know, but I must not predict the outcome of the criminal investigations and legal proceedings in the US.”
Parties not ‘disappearing’
During a previous statement on Friday, Dr. Wheatley also addressed concerns about the future of political parties in the territory after the formation of the NUG. Though the new government includes members of three parties — the VI Party, the National Democratic Party, and the Progressive VI Movement — the arrangement doesn’t mean party politics are a thing of the past, Dr. Wheatley said.
The VIP, NDP and PVIM will continue to remain viable entities, he added, though he did not mention the future of a fourth party, Progressives United, whose sole elected representative in the House of Assembly is Opposition Leader Julian Fraser.
“At governmental level, the members of the Government of National Unity comprise one unit,” he said. “While this is the case, we want to reassure the public that political parties in the Virgin Islands will continue to be an integral part of representative democracy here in the islands. They will not be disappearing from the political landscape.”
Dana Kampa contributed to this report.
This story has been updated from the original version.
The 22-page proposal was released shortly after the press conference. [FULL PROPOSAL]