Hours after the House of Assembly voted to revoke Andrew Fahie’s premiership on Thursday, Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley was sworn in to head a new “national unity government” that is promising to expedite the reforms recommended by the recent Commission of Inquiry.
However, the cross-party government may not be allowed to proceed for long.
The United Kingdom still has not announced whether it will follow the COI’s recommendation to partially suspend the Constitution in order to dissolve the HOA and implement a two-year period of direct rule under the governor and an advisory council.
If the UK accepts that recommendation, the new “national unity government” could be dissolved within days. Otherwise, it could get a chance to lead for the next 10 to 12 months, after which an election is due.
A sense of optimism prevailed during the swearing-in ceremony on Thursday evening at the Government House.
As reporters snapped photos and family applauded, the members of the reshuffled Cabinet took the oath of office and were sworn in by Governor John Rankin.
After Dr. Wheatley was sworn in, he gave a brief speech promising that his new government would focus on expediting the reforms recommended by the COI, many of which have been promised for decades by successive administrations that have made scant progress.
“Let me state unequivocally that the national unity government is fully committed to reform,” said Dr. Wheatley, a first-term legislator who served as deputy premier in Mr. Fahie’s administration. “For the avoidance of doubt, I want to be perfectly clear: Our top priority is the implementation of the recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry report within a framework of democratic governance, and in close cooperation with the governor and United Kingdom, our partners.”
He added that this reform cannot be accomplished within “existing structures” of the government.
“An implementation body will have to be created to support and advance the work involved, and there will have to be partnership between the Virgin Islands and United Kingdom to achieve the desired outcome of a model democracy whose institutions and systems of government are robust and whose economy provides opportunities for everyone to make a decent living,” he said.
Despite his optimistic tone, Dr. Wheatley also briefly acknowledged the precarious position of his new government.
“I am well aware that a decision has not yet been made by the United Kingdom on the report’s recommendation for a partial suspension of the Constitution,” he said. “Nonetheless, we will continue to engage the governor on how best the national unity government can work in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands to deliver reform.”
Mr. Rankin also spoke briefly at the ceremony, but he did not hint at the UK’s thinking on the possible dissolution of the HOA.
“I would like to join the honourable premier in pledging myself to work together in partnership to improve governance in the Virgin Islands,” he said.
The UK has not provided a date for a decision on the way forward. However, Amanda Milling, the UK minister for overseas territories, said Wednesday after a three-day visit to the territory that reforms “must happen quickly.”
“As I return to the UK, I have a lot to consider,” she said. “I will share the feedback from the range of individuals and groups I have met with the foreign secretary, and we will discuss what steps to take next.”
She added that she would also speak to Mr. Rankin and Dr. Wheatley on “how to tackle the issues which are holding back” the territory’s development.
“Everyone I have met have agreed that there needs to be significant changes in the BVI to improve governance,” Ms. Milling said. “There is an urgent need to fix the systems, processes, laws and norms to ensure that money spent by the government — your money — is better spent on roads, education, hospitals and better public services and not misused as the COI has found.”
The new government includes two party leaders who formerly served in the opposition: former Opposition Leader Marlon Penn, who is now the minister of health and social development; and Mitch Turnbull, who is now the minister of natural resources, labour and immigration.
In those roles, they replaced Carvin Malone and Vincent Wheatley, who each remain in the government with no ministry.
Meanwhile, Kye Rymer retained his position as transportation, works and utilities minister, and now serves as deputy premier as well.
Former Junior Minister for Tourism Sharie De Castro is now the minister for education, culture, youth affairs and sports — subjects formerly overseen by Dr. Wheatley.
Former backbencher Alvera Maduro-Caines is the new junior minister for tourism, and Shereen Flax-Charles retained her position as junior minister for trade and economic development.
The political shifts have left a one-man opposition composed of Third District Representative Julian Fraser.