The Virgin Islands' freedom to make its own political and economic decisions is often taken for granted by locals and non-locals alike who are unfamiliar with the modern history of the islands.
All too often it is assumed that either self-government has always been in place or that the United Kingdom (UK) in its benevolence instituted self-government. Neither is the case.
The historical record shows that self-government in the Virgin Islands, and democracy for that matter, came about as a result of the demand by the people of the Virgin Islands for the British Empire to re-establish local decision making and political representation on the islands during the middle of the 20th century.
This history is largely unknown by the population today and not well integrated into the school system or into the residency, Belonger and naturalisation processes.
A lack of awareness of the modern history of the Virgin Islands from the mid-20th century onward may be a contributing factor to the much-diminished pride in the Virgin Islands by many locals and non-locals.
The occasion of the 70th anniversary of the House of Assembly on 20th November 2020 is an opportunity to educate the public on how the Virgin Islands came to have self-government and democracy that have been instrumental in the islands' progress and upheld the dignity of Virgin Islanders as a people.
The House of Assembly's modern history as a legislature provides a lens through which to see how self-government and democracy were actually achieved.
The legislature's historical roots are in the Great March of 24th November 1949 when more than 1,500 Virgin Islanders converged on Road Town in a peaceful demonstration to protest the gross neglect of the British Empire and to demand the return of local decision-making and political representation in the governance of the islands after five decades of direct rule in which the Virgin Islands was the poorest part of the Federal Colony of the Leeward Islands.
In response to the Great March, the Colony's General Legislative Council based in Antigua adopted the first modern Constitution for the Virgin Islands in July 1950 based on the recommendations of a local Constitutional Committee in the Virgin Islands chaired by the late Honourable Howard Penn, OBE.
The new Constitution provided for a legislature to make laws for the islands in the form of a restored Legislative Council that was earlier abolished in 1902. The Legislative Council's initial composition included both elected and appointed members.
The first election under the new Constitution was held on 20th November 1950, after which the elected and appointed members took their seats that officially reconstituted the Legislative Council. However, until 1967 executive power remained under British authority in the person of the Commissioner whose title later changed to Administrator and then Governor.
This was the first measure of internal self-government achieved in the Virgin Islands from which self-government and democracy have evolved.
From its inception, the Legislative Council played a critical role in the development of the Virgin Islands, particularly as one of the main drivers of the initial modernisation of the islands in the pre-ministerial government era from 1950 to 1967 under the Committee/Membership system.
After 15 years in operation, the Legislative Council sought greater autonomy for the islands and was instrumental in the introduction of the Ministerial System of Government in 1967 that featured the appointment of both a Chief Minister as the Leader of Government Business (i.e. Head of Government) and portfolio Ministers from among the elected representatives. It also included an Executive Council comprised of the Governor and Ministers of Government.
The Legislative Council was renamed the House of Assembly in 2007 along with the change of titles of the Chief Minister to Premier and the Executive Council to Cabinet.
The House of Assembly for seven decades has been the political institution in which the representatives elected by the people of the Virgin Islands have debated and made the laws of the land and kept Government accountable.
Its platinum anniversary is a time to celebrate the legislature's historical impact on the society, advances in self-government and the vibrancy of democracy.
In the lead up to the anniversary on 20th November, the Government should highlight all the persons who have served in the legislature.
Special acknowledgement should be given to the long-forgotten members of the pre-ministerial government era (1950-1967) who painstakingly guided the initial phase of modernisation upon which all else was built.
The opportunity should also not be missed to properly acknowledge the Great March of 1949, and its three great heroes of (i.e. Theodolph H. Faulkner, Isaac Glanville Fonseca, OBE and Carlton L. de Castro, OBE), which moved the British Empire to restore the Legislative Council to the Virgin Islands.
These freedom fighters and the pre-ministerial government era members of the Legislative Council are the founding fathers of the modern Virgin Islands. A great debt is owed to them for changing the course of Virgin Islands history.
A special sitting of the House of Assembly should be held on 20th November to mark the 70th anniversary of the legislature during which time the House can proclaim 24th November 'Virgin Islands Day' to serve as the official day on which the people of the islands celebrate the Virgin Islands story and the peoples’ great journey on the path of self-determination.
Let us never take for granted the freedom the Virgin Islands enjoys today that was the product of the hard work and sacrifice of those who came before us.
Virgin Islands pride!
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