Government of Montserrat


Speech to the UN C 24 Committee in NY
by Hon Premier Donaldson Romeo
on June 25th 2019
(The 22nd Anniversary of the Fatal volcanic eruption of June 25, 1997)

Madamme Chair,
Today, 1:10 pm, marked twenty two years to the minute since the volcanic eruption of June 25th 1997, killed nineteen people in Montserrat. It is therefore a highly symbolic honour for me to address this Assembly today, not only as Premier of the British Overseas Territory of Montserrat, but as an eyewitness to the opening scenes of this ongoing tragedy.

Some would like to forget this event, and to leave it in the past. But the painful reality for us Montserratians is that the past has NOT passed. Twenty two years on, we continue to live with man-made consequences of a natural disaster.

Nelson Mandela, was right: we must rightly understand the past if we are to act wisely in the present and build a sound future.
In 1998, after investigating the June 25 fatalities, Her Majesty’s Coroner concluded that HMG and the GoM had contributed to the deaths of 11 persons because of:
• the failure of local and British authorities to provide alternative land in the safe area for farmers
• the deplorable conditions in the public shelters that led many to remain in the danger zone rather than return to them
• the continuing operation of the airport downhill of the volcano, despite elevated volcanic activity in the days immediately preceding 25th June 1997.

Regarding the pressing need for land and housing in the safe zone, Her Majesty’s Coroner declared twenty-one years ago:
“Some efforts have been made in this direction but one has only to count the months since the crisis began — over forty, and note the fact that there are still approaching 400 people in the shelters, as well as hundreds more in overcrowded shared accommodation, and yet more in involuntary exile overseas, to see that the British Government response has been unimaginative, grudging and tardy. […] It is still simply inadequate to the scale of need. […] I hope that he [Prime Minister Tony Blair] will now take personal charge and instruct his officials that the necessary funds must at last be provided to enable sufficient land to be acquired for adequate and decent housing to be constructed.”

(Inquest conclusion, 31st December 1998).
Similarly, in 1998, the UK Parliamentary Committee that oversees the UK Overseas Aid Department, wrote that: “in the case of Montserrat we do not merely have the unfortunate losses of a few thousand individuals but an imperilled society. The normal rules cannot apply ”.
By the time that HMG, under great media pressure, started the funding of housing projects in the safe zone, thousands of homeless Montserratians were already fleeing the island, to Antigua and the UK. In the UK, welfare, social, educational, health, housing and other needs were and continue to be met at UK British standards for thousands of evacuees, while those remaining on Montserrat have continued to struggle on a regime of aid relentlessly kept at survival level. This has contributed to a continuing loss of population, especially of our youth.
Despite 500 million pounds of aid over the years (mostly, basic annual budget support) the pattern of delays continues. The GoM has consistently remained 60% dependent on the UK for its recurrent budget and over 90% for its capital budget. Responsibility for this must be shared between Montserrat and the UK which has more breached than observed (“More honor’d in the breach than the observance” *) the clear, legally binding mandate of the UN Charter, Article 73, to “ensure […] political, economic, social, and educational advancement”, and again to “promote constructive measures of development” .

For, despite UK policy commitments such as the FCO 2012 White Paper that “reasonable assistance needs of the Territories are a first call on the UK’s international development budget,” there has been a persistent problem of start, stop, study, restart, stop then start again for essential projects.

There has been a tendency to construct inadequate, temporary and sometimes knowingly inappropriate key infrastructure, such as the new airport, substandard housing, and the only secondary school compound – creating present and future burdens for the Government and people of Montserrat.

Knowingly inadequate social welfare benefits have been set for vulnerable senior citizens, and for a fraction of the working poor who are more often single mothers. Salaries for public servants have also been rigidly fixed despite accumulating inflation, leading to a steady brain drain, mostly benefiting the UK.

The Government of Montserrat has little or no funds to address years of backlog maintenance of its own buildings and social housing. Year after year new spends which could address these and other essential recurrent challenges are denied, preventing the GoM from fulfilling its legally binding responsibilities.

Yes, the UK did recently agree to fund a 30 million pound, five year capital programme including a hospital and health care programme, housing, school improvement, airport runway and road improvement, fibre optic cable, and, combined with EU funding, the 21.5 million pound port development project was also recently launched. But that is after a 22 year struggle, and with zero commitment to addressing the shortfall or other basic and parallel development needs.

This is why I extend thanks on behalf of my people for the pivotal December 7, 2018 General Assembly resolution on Montserrat. I also thank the Committee of 24 and the UK Government for agreeing to the upcoming visit to Montserrat, Antigua and the UK, which will allow the unfiltered voices of Montserratians to be heard on the record. I also specifically request that the Committee, through the UN’s good offices, assist GoM in coordination with HMG regarding the following:
• creating a charter of good governance that will set a framework for democratic self government, for structured consultations with stakeholders, for guiding reforms, for enhancing transparency and for managing our relationship with the UK,
• associated public education and constitutional review, towards improved self-governance and resolving our status as a non-self-governing territory,
• developing proper whistle-blower and ombudsman mechanisms (as a part of improved governance),
• a programme to retain police officers, trained teachers, nurses and other highly skilled people,
• a timeline and funded plan to adequately house some 400 remaining evacuees living on Montserrat and still waiting for decent, affordable hurricane-resistant housing,
• a repopulation programme for Montserratians living in exile overseas who wish to return (as was promised when they were offered the evacuation package 22 years ago),
• a comprehensive, balanced immigration plan,
• the completion of road infrastructure that will upgrade roads and will allow for power, water, communication and fiber lines to be placed underground,
• timely delivery of key housing, hospital, port (sea and air) infrastructure which are adequate and allow for future growth
• the development of geothermal power at affordable cost to the people, which, combined with the fiber optic bandwidth, will attract job creating industries
• a comprehensive education and health programme with adequate infrastructure, equipment and staffing
• adequate facilities for library, cafeteria, sports, and cultural activities and for students and youth
• training for scientifically and technically inclined students, youth and adults
• a decent welfare package for the aged and vulnerable
• a neutral, UN-supported facilitator on island to observe and aid with required negotiations, agreements and implementation of projects that will assure social, educational, health care, youth development and resilient economic growth out of dependence and colonial rule.

Volcanic activity has declined significantly, and through geothermal power, millions of tons of sand, and our accessible, half-buried town, our enemy (in the timeless words of Bob Marley) has now become our friend. Our emerald hills and sparkling springs, our green forest trails and grey sand beaches are as beautiful as ever, if not more. Nature is doing its part, collaborating with the Almighty, to work all things together for good. What about us humans?

For the burning question is no longer: “Who (the British or Montserratian Government) is more responsible for twenty-two years of short sighted and ill-considered decisions, for chronic mismanagement, corruption and ignoring scientific advice?”. But rather: “Are we (Montserrat and UK governments, assisted by the UN C24 Committee) willing to work together to turn tragedy into the triumph of good will?

Montserrat is inhabited by a peaceful, warm and friendly people, resilient and hardworking. Twenty-two years have taught us, the hard way, that handouts of fish are not enough. Montserratians are asking for help (with the support of the Special Committee on Decolonization) not only to learn how to fish, but to acquire the nets hooks, rods, lines, bait and boats, yes the equipment, infrastructure and good governance that will allow us to establish ourselves in the fishing business for generations to come.

On this tragic anniversary, I cannot think of a better memorial to those who died, or a greater gift to those suffering still but hoping against hope.

Premier Romeo’s presentation to the UN C24 Committee can be viewed here: