Government of Montserrat

Montserrat’s Presentation to UN Special Committee on Decolonization June 21 2018, NY

Presented by Premier, Honourable Donaldson Romeo 

First of all, today, I want to affirm the position that Montserrat, being a non-self-governing territory under the purview of this committee, remains a territory to which the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples continues to apply.

 

Premier Romeo speaking at the UN Special Committee On Decolonization

Thus, I, Donaldson Romeo, Premier and leader of Government and people of Montserrat formally withdraw the request made by the former Premier, Mr. Reuben Meade, to remove Montserrat from the list of territories still to be decolonized.  I believe that request was premature, ill-advised, and undemocratic, as the people of Montserrat had not been consulted on the matter.

 

In the 1980s the Emerald Isle of the West Indies, Montserrat, sparkled with optimism.  Our recurrent budget was self-financed.  Sir George Martin’s Air Studios, villa tourism, the American University of the Caribbean, Radio Antilles, and a quiet, relatively crime-free society all pointed to a bright future.

 

Then came Hugo in 1989, a category four Hurricane which flattened the island. In July 1995, just six years later, not fully recovered from Hugo, we were confronted with an erupting volcano.

 

In 1997 the Soufriere Hills volcano exploded, turning our capital Plymouth, into a modern Pompeii, eventually burying it under forty feet of ash and mud. Overnight, we lost nineteen precious lives, our Capital and two-thirds of our land, as well as key infrastructure, including our only seaport, airport, hospital and secondary school, seven villages along with their primary schools, clinics, fertile farmlands, playfields, police stations, etc.

 

Predictably, our economy collapsed, forcing us into grant-in-aid status.  We then lost two-thirds of our population, forced into involuntary exile, mostly in Antigua and the UK, mainly because of the very slow replacement of homes and key infrastructure.

 

While I must acknowledge some good work and support from Her Majesty’s Government over the past twenty-three years, many vital development projects for Montserrat have been unduly delayed through a pattern of fits and starts, re-starts and non-starters.

 

Over the past 23 years, critical initiatives have been deadlocked for months, and even years on end; some for 20 plus years!  And of the projects that did finally get through, some, like the Airport in 2006, were cut down to an ineffective level, seriously and negatively affecting future development.

 

I am therefore, now, formally inviting the United Nations, whose responsibility it is to promote social, economic, political and educational progress in non-self-governing territories, to work in special partnership with Montserrat and the United Kingdom, to put our island back on the path to sound, sustainable development.

 

I want to make it clear to all that I am not here, either as an enemy, or as a distant acquaintance of the British, but, like all Montserratians, as a British citizen. I am here today to call on this committee to work in partnership with Her Majesty’s Government, and with the Government of Montserrat, towards enhancing the flourishing and good name of us all.

 

Over 500 million pounds sterling are said to have been spent on Montserrat over the past 23 years. Yet, today, we continue to be 60% dependent on the UK for our recurrent budget and over 90% for our capital program. It is becoming increasingly obvious to many, that, rather than continuing to keep the island for another 23 years or even more on an expensive life-support machine, it would cost the UK tax payer much less in the long run, to invest wisely and intensively in Montserrat now.

 

Indeed, had just half of that 500 million been spent 10 to 15 years ago to adequately replace key infrastructure like the seaport, airport, hospital, undersea fibre optic cable, road infrastructure, and housing for thousands of evacuees in the safe north, Montserrat would by now have been well on its way out of dependency on the UK government for both recurrent and capital budget.

 

One piece of good news is that the volcano, once our worse enemy, may now be counted as one of our best allies.  It has been quiet since 2009 and the remaining population has settled well away from its destructive path, and it is monitored by a state-of-the-art Volcano Observatory and its highly qualified staff.

 

Our buried town and the volcano itself are now significant tourist attractions.  On the slopes of the volcano lie millions of tons of exportable sand and stone.  With the help of the UK government, geothermal wells have been dug, which have the potential to provide Montserrat with abundant, clean, renewable energy at a reasonable cost.  All that is missing is the installation of the generating plant.

 

So nature is now on our side.  It is now up to the human players (HMG, GoM and the UN), to seize this unique opportunity to use Montserrat as a showcase for what can be done when politicking is set aside, and empowering a hurting people becomes the priority.  We must however, be mindful of the following:

 

  1. In providing aid for the hospital, geothermal development, the seaport, etc., a repeat of the airport bungle could prove to be the one disaster too many.
  2. In the past year, the UK government has been under intense media pressure to renege on commitments which would not only get Montserrat out of dependency on UK tax payers, but would also be in keeping with their legal responsibility and policy commitments to a British Overseas Territory like Montserrat.
  3. The recent action by parliamentarians in the UK, forcing legislation on the Overseas Territories, contradicts the UK’s stated policy and principle of allowing the Territories to take the “greatest control over their lives”. Although Foreign and Commonwealth Minister responsible for the Overseas Territories, Lord Bates led the House of Lords to vote against the Bill, which the Prime Minister herself is said to be opposed, they were outvoted and overruled.
  4. Recent devastation of neighbouring Anguilla, Barbuda, BVI and Dominica has moved many to believe that Montserrat, in its many ‘unhurricane’ worthy houses and temporary private and public infrastructure, and only partially recovered from the volcanic crisis, might be one disaster away from being evacuated.

 

If some UK Ministers/Parliamentarians choose to act against the greater good of the British Overseas Territories as well as their own tax payers, then policy, legal and constitutional commitments to Overseas Territories would be meaningless and encourage uncertainty.  The renewed and encouraging efforts of present FCO and DfID Ministers towards the British Overseas Territories like Montserrat would be undermined.  It seems to us that ambivalence or uncertainty on the UK side points to a need for a MoU and the involvement of the UN C24 to nudge things forward.

 

The current population, now located in the designated safe zone, the northern one-third of the island, is determined to build back better. We are also convinced that the sustainable development for which we are striving is a forerunner of any move towards post-colonial emancipation.

 

To help us put such a partnership in place, I am calling on the UN to:

 

  1. Support a Development Partnership Agreement or Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Montserrat and Her Majesty’s Government. The MoU would have a list of priority projects with committed funds and a set timeline for their design and implementation.  The MoU would also address the relationship between the UK and Montserrat.
  2. Appoint a neutral team to monitor closely progress in the negotiation and implementation of said projects (and provide yearly reports).
  3. Send a visiting team to Montserrat, as well as to meet evacuees living in the neighbouring Island of Antigua and the large population of evacuees in London, many of whom wish to return to live and contribute to Montserrat’s redevelopment.

 

The timely replacement of basic but key transformative infrastructure destroyed by the volcano stands between the People of Montserrat and economic independence.  This in a sense is nothing new.  Montserrat’s plight can best be understood by making reference to what a former Chief Minister of Montserrat said to this committee long before the volcanic disaster. Nearly thirty years ago, in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo on July 30, 1990 Chief Minister John Osborne said:

 

“…most of the people of Montserrat, particularly the young, would like political independence, but were deterred by the lack of a basic infrastructure. With assistance in developing its infrastructure, including a proper airport and a safe harbour, Montserrat could develop a viable economy and opt for independence. The Territory had failed to convince the United Kingdom, however, that such assistance would remove the need for further hand-outs.”

 

Mr. Osborne further pointed out that “it would be a mistake to demand independence under the existing economic and physical conditions in Montserrat and most of the remaining Territories.   Because, while he believed in the right to self-determination, he understood that people were hindered from exercising that right because of the economic situation and a lack of preparatory support for independence.”

 

The challenge has for a long time been, to come together in effective partnership as a joint Montserrat Government and UK Government team.  Nearly thirty years on, I repeat this prophetic appeal on behalf of the longsuffering but determined and courageous people of Montserrat.

 
If we manage to pull this off together, it will be a win-win outcome for all concerned – the people of Montserrat, the British Government and the UN.