Governor John Rankin was one of many leaders in the territory called to testify before the Commission of Inquiry last November. He said in a recent interview he would likely decide to make the COI’s final report public in the interest of transparency. (Screenshot: COI)

Managing the pandemic, keeping up with the Commission of Inquiry, and overseeing changes within the public service made for a busy first year in office for Governor John Rankin. Mr. Rankin, a former Bermuda governor, recently sat down with the Beacon to share his experience serving as governor during such tumultuous times. In the interview, he recounted his time working to secure support for addressing Covid-19, learning more about the Virgin Islands community, building relationships with the premier and other elected officials, and collaborating with public officers to tackle serious crime, among other efforts.

The governor also laid out his goals for the year ahead, including initiatives to support environmental projects and youth programmes. Come April, Mr. Rankin expects the COI team to put its report on his desk, and he explained the next steps in preparing it to be made public, without speculating on its contents or the possible outcomes. Regardless, he said leaders are seeking ways to better support the independent institutions responsible for investigating corruption in the future.

Mr. Rankin added that he has been grateful for the opportunities to connect with residents this year and looks forward to getting more involved if the pandemic wanes in 2022.

What are some of the key issues that you’ve been glad to address this year?

Well, it’s been a very busy year. It remains a real privilege to be working here in BVI and getting to meet the people of this territory. Part of my job has been to get to sister islands, all of which I enjoyed visiting. Obviously, getting to meet also the communities in Tortola — getting to meet people from all different sectors for financial services, public service, the voluntary sector, particularly young people. They’re so important to the future of the territory.

Pictured above giving his 2022 Speech from the Throne, Governor John Rankin said he’s been pleased to build “constructive” and respect-filled relationships with elected members of government. (File photo: JOEY WALDINGER)

And I visited different schools, met young people involved in different activities. I was particularly pleased just last week to be meeting students who went to our climate change competition. They were great.

I’ve just seen the young people so enthusiastic, and getting to see the different green initiatives of the island.

So all of that has been really helpful for me in terms of understanding the territory and seeing so many good things going on.

But, of course, there have been challenges. The biggest challenge has been responding to Covid-19, which has affected every community across the world. Unfortunately, we had deaths. The first thing is to offer condolences to all those who have lost loved ones.

But my main job has been to give BVI the support it needs. So that has been the supply of all the vaccines.

And being able to do boosters now —

Boosters remain the best protection we have against Covid. To give you an idea of what we provided in terms of ventilators and [personal protective equipment]: Since 2020, the UK has provided, together with vaccines, $1.7 million worth of support to BVI. Most recently, we delivered on the 15th of December the first Pfizer doses — 4,680 Pfizer doses plus another 2,000 of AstraZeneca.

We remain committed to providing all the vaccines the territory needs. There’s more to be done. We now have just over 17,000 adults double vaccinated. That’s over 57 percent of the adult population. But that’s not enough.

Of course, we are thankful for the fact that omicron may be less severe in its effects than earlier versions of the virus, but we do know that those who are elderly, those who are vulnerable, and those who have not been vaccinated and received boosters are the ones most at risk. So we’ve got to get that figured out.

That’s been a huge effort, working very closely here with the minister of health, chief medical officer, and Public Health England to help the territory to tackle these challenges. That has been my biggest focus of work.

Second has been carrying out my responsibilities under the Constitution, and, in particular, my responsibilities for security, for policing; supporting the police commissioner and his team in the work they do; helping to tackle serious crime; helping to tackle the transit of drugs through the territory; and helping to safeguard people on the island. I want to recognise the results that the police have achieved in 2021 in this area. They have in the past year seized 30 firearms, 1,650 rounds of ammunition, two tonnes of cocaine, 150 scooters in breach of the regulations or not properly insured.

Governor John Rankin received a Covid-19 vaccine last February, and in a recent interview about his first year in office, he stressed the importance of making booster shots widely available in the territory. (File photo: CLAIRE SHEFCHIK)

We’ve been tackling cold case murders, and bringing evidence to the [director of public prosecutions], and in turn there have been people to book for murder and attempted murder. And we’ve seen a decrease in robbery and in sexual offences.

Now, we must not be complacent. I know the police commissioner isn’t complacent, and there is work to be done.

But I will continue to support the police in terms of their training, specialist ballistic identification, body armour cameras, and practical repairs to the Road Town Police Station and the stations to be built on Virgin Gorda and Jost Van Dyke. That’s been a high priority for me.

And boats for police out on the water. We’ve spent over $1 million in the past two years working in that area. And then support for the independent institutions in the territory like the courts, the auditor general, the director of public prosecutions, and for an independent professional public service. All of that relates to the good governance of the territory.

What does that support look like for those institutions? Is that mostly monetary or providing more staffing and training?

Training. And helping to maintain their independence to ensure that they are politically neutral bodies and carry out their work without fear or favour. They’re so important to governance of the territory.

Then we’ve had the Commission Inquiry over the past year, which I’ve had to appear before, like many others. That fits with working with good governance.

I believe the decision to call the Commission of Inquiry was the right decision. I recognise it’s been a demanding process for all concerned, and it’s looked into serious issues. I think the right thing to do has been to look into them.

However difficult it may have been for some persons, what would have been much worse for the territory would have been to sweep these issues under the carpet.

We await the Commission of Inquiry report, and I must not pre-judge what will be in that report.

Although I think it’s been a challenging process, I believe it’s been right to do it, and I believe it will contribute in the long term to the better governance of the territory.

Obviously, you don’t know what’s in the report at this point, but have you been discussing what the possible outcomes will be? And how the BVI will respond?

It’s something I’ve given thought to. The areas which the Commission of Inquiry has looked into are well known — procurement, appointments to statutory boards, use of public funds, [failures] to declare interests. But the commission is independent. [Commissioner] Sir Gary Higginbottom is not under my instructions for what he writes in the report.

I need to receive the report, then consider the appropriate response to it. I am doing lots of thinking about what it might say, but I need to wait to see it. As governor, the responsible thing I can do is wait to see it, and then consider its contents carefully.

We know that its deadline has been pushed to April now. Can you walk me through the process of what happens once you receive it: whether you would have the power to do any sort of redactions, and what the timeline would be for making it public?

The main reason that the report has been moved from the earlier January date is because of this redactions issue. There were further requests made by the Attorney General’s Chambers for redactions. The commissioner is determined to deal with those applications for redactions before the report comes to me.

The other factor was the sheer volume of material being produced. So I hope that there will be very few, if any, further redactions that have to be dealt with. I hope they’ll all be settled before the report comes to me and that I will receive reports in a manner which can be made available.

A formal decision still has to be made, but I hope that as much as possible of the report will be made public. But I cannot make a formal decision on that until the report is received by me.

But you would be the one who would make the decision and who would make it public? I know Sir Gary Hickinbottom said he would support making it public.

That is correct. The decision would lie with me as governor. I am in favour of transparency in these areas. I need to receive the report before I make a final decision, but it is my wish as governor to be as transparent as possible.

Jumping back to the subject of crime, we were talking about how that was a big focus for you. We’ve seen a number of large drug busts in the past year or two. Do you get the sense that that’s because of stepping up more national security? Is it because you’re seeing an increase in activity? Is it some combination of both?

There was a very big drug seizure in 2020, right before I arrived. That’s the biggest on record.

We’ve had a number of successes since then. I think that’s due to the vigilance of the police and their determination to tackle those who deal with this trade.

That has my full support because it does not help BVI’s international reputation to be considered a major transit route for illegal drugs, particularly transit into United States.

Secondly, the violence that can be associated with drugs. Last year, the drive-by shooting outside International Motors was obviously of deep concern to everybody within the community. I’m also concerned about the loss of life, and particularly young people who get caught up by the supposed attractions of the drug trade, perceived as easy money.

Very often they are the ones who were arrested and held accountable for things which may be organised by more senior persons. The illicit drug sector has a corrosive effect on society. I very much welcome the successes we’ve had in this area.

In the Standing Finance Committee report that came out recently, there was a lot of talk about staffing shortages, both within the police and wider public service. What sort of actions are you hoping to take in the upcoming year, and what have you been able to do in your first year to help address that?

It has been a challenging period for the police, and there are staff shortages within the police service. The current Covid situation has led to a number of absences.

But I continue to work with both the police commissioner and with the government, which provides a budget for the police, to try to get the police back up to full operational strength.

And there has been some progress made in this area, and we hope for further progress in the year ahead.

Earlier we touched on Covid. What does management look like in the coming year? Nobody has a crystal ball, but how do we start to transition to more normal activity?

It is really important we do. We need to try to get to back to as near to normal as we can. That’s important for the economy, to get tourism back in here. I welcome cruise ships coming back in and welcome the increased bookings, which I understand we’re seeing in the hotels, in the resorts, and obviously the return of more sailing into the territory.

All of those are very important economically.

But most of all, I welcome the fact we’re going to be able to get young people back into school.

This has been a very disruptive period for young people, disruptive for them educationally, disruptive for them in terms of socialising with their classmates, disruptive for teachers. I really hope we can get the schools back up and running for a prolonged period.

Now that we have the freezers for the Pfizer vaccine, do you anticipate that we’d need to make any more substantial infrastructure investments for addressing Covid in the upcoming year?

We’re due to get a second freezer. At the moment, we only have one freezer. The first delivery of 4,685 Pfizer doses was for the size of that freezer. The second freezer is on its way, and once that arrives, we’ll be able to supply a large number of doses to the territory and push the rollout of boosters.

Have you seen a significant difference in being able to offer the Pfizer vaccines with people who are more willing to take it who haven’t yet?

We’ll have to see. AstraZeneca has been highly effective in dealing with the Covid. I myself am double vaccinated with AstraZeneca, but I know some people for one reason or another have a preference for Pfizer or Moderna.

But going forward, Pfizer is what the UK will provide in the territory, because that is good both for boosters and good for vaccination.

The reason we didn’t previously is because we didn’t have the freezers. If that’s the preferred choice of some people, then I’m very glad we have it here.

Looking at the information that’s come out in the COI investigation, a lot of it is based on reports that were made public and are decades old. What mechanisms do you see that we can put in place to make sure that when these reports are filed, something actually changes in a timely manner?

I think that’s the key question. The Commission of Inquiry report is simply that — a report.

The key thing is to make sure that lessons are learned from the report and steps are taken by all responsible to ensure that those lessons are learned, and where there has been a failure of good governance, that action is taken to remedy it so the public can have confidence in good governance going forward; have confidence that public funds be used properly in the best interests of the people in the territory and in the best interest of the BVI. That is, I believe, the central importance of the COI.

If people have been responsible for wrongdoing, then they should be held to account. But all of this is with the purpose of achieving better governance with the territory for the people of BVI.

Do you think that the UK could have done anything sooner to step in in some of these instances?

That’s perhaps for other people to judge. Clearly, the hope would be for the BVI to be a largely self-governing territory. And the hope would be that where concerns are raised, they are dealt with by BVI itself.

But the assessment of my predecessor, which I support, is that there were widespread concerns which were not adequately dealt with. Therefore, the COI was required to bring in an independent judge to examine these issues.

It’s been a very transparent process. Everybody has been able to watch the hearings, and people were able to come and give their evidence and answer questions.

It will be up to the people themselves to make their own judgment, but I believe it’s been an important process, and important in bringing transparency to some of these issues, letting people hear and see for themselves how issues of concern are being looked at and addressed. From the meetings I have had with many people across different sectors of the territory, I believe that most people believe that the COI has been an important process and look forward to its recommendations being dealt with seriously when they come.

One of the reasons why the former governor said he launched the inquiry was because of reports he was hearing from high-level officials about corruption. Have you been hearing direct reports along those lines? Or have you not been hearing those same issues since the commission has started?

I continue to work with the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force, and with the other independent institutions in the territory who look into any possible layer of corruption, to support them in that work.

Do you have any other goals for the upcoming year that we haven’t already covered?

On a personal front, I look forward to my children being able to visit. My middle daughter, who is an intensive care nurse in the Covid ward in a hospital in London, is coming out here very shortly. I am looking forward to showing her around the territory.

I look forward to getting to know more people in the territory. It has been a demanding year because of Covid, and I haven’t been able to do some of the things we would normally do in a non-Covid situation.

I look forward to welcoming more people to the Government House, especially in the charitable sector. We’ve done some events to support fundraising, but I hope to do more of those. They are an essential part of the overall provision of services in the territory.

And, of course, I want to get out more. It’s always instructive and good to get out and about, particularly to the sister islands. I work with the government ministers, and I believe I have a constructive relationship with the honourable premier, his ministers, and members of the opposition. But it’s always a pleasure to meet people outside of public office as well and get their feedback on what I can do to help the territory. The more I can get that feedback, hopefully the better I can do my job. Because my job is to serve the people of the territory.

Speaking of the premier, do you think discussions you’ve had with him could possibly be made more transparent? Is that something you’d hope to see in the future: more open discussions between successive governors and premiers?

That’s a good question. Let me repeat that the premier and I have constructive relationship. We will sometimes disagree. And I will state my position without fear or favour, as he will. We will not always agree, because we have differences of view, but we will seek to do so in a respectful manner.

I chair Cabinet, but I don’t have a vote in Cabinet. Cabinet proceedings are confidential. But there is perhaps more we can all do to communicate further to the public on our work, in Cabinet, in the National Security Council, within the bounds of necessary confidentiality. And I will reflect on that in the year ahead.

Is there anything else that we didn’t touch on that you’d like to address?

The other thing I do want to talk about was just on climate change. I am committed, and the UK is committed, to supporting further measures on the green initiatives here in the territory, in particular in conjunction with the Recovery and Development Agency.

We continue to support solar panel projects in the territory, and particularly in our schools. They have three benefits. One is the reduced electricity bill for the school. Secondly, in the event of a failure of the electricity system, or in the event of a hurricane, they can provide a community centre for people to recharge their mobile phones.

Then thirdly, the educational value for children by having these sort of projects in school. We will keep on rolling those out in schools in the territory.

We’re also continuing to support work in tackling stony coral tissue [loss] disease. We’re continue to support that as a follow up to COP26 in my home city of Glasgow, and supporting the government to move towards more renewable energy, reduce the use of fossil fuels.

In terms of developing the territory going forward in tourism, that surely is the way forward. I’ve got a personal commitment to that, because previous generations including my generation have not preserved the environment as well as we should.

But we now know beyond doubt that it’s man-made activity in carbon emissions that have contributed to climate change, and that increased intensity in hurricanes, which we all know can be so damaging to this territory.

My generation and the current generation of leaders owe it to future generations to invest in this area and help to bring us to a greener future. So that’s a very strong personal commitment of mine, which I want to continue to support.

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Dana Kampa.