Last Monday, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley deemed “untrue” a statement by Governor John Rankin suggesting that the Virgin Islands Party had the option of calling early elections during last year’s political crisis.(Photo: GIS)

Last Monday, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley sharply criticised Governor John Rankin for his “untrue” claim that the government could have called early elections during the political turmoil last year.

The premier’s criticism stemmed from a response the governor provided during a Feb. 14 press conference, where Guavaberry Media Manager Cindy Rosan asked about the formation of the National Unity Government days after the Florida arrest of then-Premier Andrew Fahie on April 28.

“Was this really the only option available to the territory as a democracy as have been stated over and over by the now sitting unity government?” Ms. Rosan asked. “Was it an option that the territory could have indeed had new elections between May and June 2022 to decide on new persons to lead the territory along with the [United Kingdom]?”

The governor responded, “It would of course be open to the premier to seek a dissolution of the House of Assembly at an earlier stage; seek an earlier general election. But instead of that happening, a coalition government was formed between the different parties — the Government of National Unity — and I swore them in as I am obliged to do in line with my responsibilities under the Constitution.”

But Dr. Wheatley said Monday that this response was “untrue,” denying that his Virgin Islands Party government had the option of calling an election.

“I can only assume that he said this to deflect criticism of him by the person who asked him a related question,” Dr. Wheatley said, adding, “The governor knows full well, as he himself has previously said, that the UK government had to be persuaded not to impose direct rule in the period following his early public release of the Commission of Inquiry report on [April 29].”

Minister Milling’s visit

Dr. Wheatley said that after then-UK Overseas Territories Minister Amanda Milling travelled to the Virgin Islands for crisis talks last May, she made it “abundantly clear before she left the territory that she needed an initial commitment by the government to implement the COI report recommendations, except A1, because there was very little to time to make a case to UK ministers not to immediately suspend the Constitution.”

Even after Ms. Milling departed, he added, discussions continued with her advisors after the NUG was hastily formed on May 5. Dr. Wheatley said the NUG was given a deadline of May 6 to submit a proposal on the implementation of the COI report recommendations under continued democratic governance, which he noted “posed a big challenge for us due to time constraints.”

The government, he said, was reminded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office that there was “precious little time” to make a case to convince then-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and UK ministers not to impose direct rule.

A proposal was first submitted on May 8, but it was not accepted by the UK as the FCDO had concerns that UK ministers would not see the proposal “as strong enough and would decide to proceed with immediate suspension,” according to the premier.

Revised proposal

A revised proposal was then submitted a few days later, but there were still no guarantees from London that the VI’s Constitution would not be immediately suspended, he added. “In fact, in developing the Framework for Implementation of the COI Report Recommendations and Other Reforms, the UK insisted on including a provision on no early elections,” Dr. Wheatley said.

This provision, he noted, is included in the final framework document agreed by the governments of the VI and the UK. “This is also another reason I am disappointed by the governor’s statement that there was an option to go to the polls during the crisis,” Dr. Wheatley said.

To support his claims, he said he instructed Government Information Services to publish a letter from Ms. Milling to the government, “so that the public can clearly see that there was no option to go to the polls as Governor Rankin stated last week.” Ms. Milling’s June 8 letter, which GIS subsequently published on government’s website, doesn’t mention the possibility of elections, but it does stress the importance of the timely implementation of the reform framework.

Dr. Wheatley reiterated that the UK insisted that the NUG agree not to call early elections, and he credited the NUG proposal with convincing the UK government not to immediately suspend the Constitution.

He added that the NUG — which includes representatives from his VI Party as well as the National Democratic Party and the Progressive VI Movement — was formed “to save democracy in this territory, which our fore parents worked so hard to achieve.” The formation of the NUG, he said, was welcomed by the UK and was seen as the best option to deliver the COI report recommendations through collective responsibility by all the major political parties.

As of Beacon press time yesterday afternoon, Mr. Rankin had not responded to the premier’s claims, and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.