Heated debate on Barbuda secession begins in parliament

Gaston Browne, PM of Antigua and Barbuda
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By Elesha George

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The House of Assembly has commenced debate on whether the government should begin formal proceedings that would permit Barbuda to secede from the unitary sovereign state of Antigua and Barbuda.

According to the constitution, Barbuda would require a two-thirds majority by way of referendum, before being allowed to separate from the mainland. However, the first step would require MPs to vote in favour of the resolution which is now before the House.

Prime Minister Gaston Browne tabled the document yesterday, quoting several legal case judgements which spoke to land ownership and titles in Barbuda – all with reasoning why the central government owns the lands on the sister isle.

“Just leave it alone because it is a case that you cannot win; it is a fallacy, it is a lie,” he told Barbuda MP, Trevor Walker, who believes, along with many other Barbudans, that the land is owned in common by the people of Barbuda.

While rebutting the Barbuda Council’s reason for wanting to secede from Antigua – some of which addresses Browne’s demeaning rhetoric towards Council members – the prime minister argued that his remarks were occasionally taken out of context.

Browne claimed that his administration was the true victim in the situation, telling Walker that even if he voted against the resolution, it was still going to go through because Browne’s party members are “all loyalists”.

“Let’s have a new dispensation going forward. Let us first of all get the unanimity that is required and recognising too that even if you vote against the resolution, it’s still going to go through because we are all loyalists over here,” he said, continuing, “If you were to get a referendum Antiguans are not going to vote for it anyway. So, you’re still going to lose.”

The prime minister also warned Walker that “a strong case of treason” could be made against him for requesting a separate future from the mainland.

That was a notion that Walker quickly turned down in his presentation, reading out to parliament the actions that constitute treason – none of which resembled his move for secession.

Opposition Leader, Jamal Pringle, determined that the day was brought about as a result of “unkind words” and “vicious actions” from the member of City West, as he blamed the prime minister for being responsible for Barbuda wanting to leave the unitary state.

Although Pringle claimed that he sympathises and understood the position that the Barbuda Council had taken, his party still could not vote for them to leave.

“I would not vote for a secession. The party that I represent, Mr Speaker, the United Progressive Party, cannot support a division between our two islands after having done so much during our tenure to strengthen the ties that bound us together,” he explained.

The Opposition Leader however frowned on the platform that the government decided to take regarding the call for a separate future.

He said bringing the matter directly to parliament without first speaking with the Council only cements the opinion that “might is right” – as the government knows fully well that the majority leans in favour of its side.

Walker also admitted that he too hoped for a discussion before the matter went as far as parliament.

He however presented the opposite view and voted for the resolution, knowing that he may be the only sitting MP to vote in that direction.

” I stand alone; I have no problems with that. I was born alone and I will die alone,” he asserted, as he explained that the Council has a strong mandate to ask for a separate future.

He said that five elections, including the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) referendum, demonstrated clearly that Barbuda people are not satisfied with the direction in which the Antigua Barbuda Labour Party (ABLP) and the prime minister is steering the island.

Walker maintained that even if the majority voted against the resolution, the fight would not end there.

For decades, he said, Barbudans have wanted independence but were “forced” and “reluctantly” committed to a relationship with Antigua, even while Barbuda was excluded from the state’s national anthem and the Constitution Order drafted by then prime minister Vere Cornwall Bird in 1981.

He laid the claim that since then hundreds of millions of dollars had been divested to build Antigua’s economy when Antigua Aggregates/Sand Co Limited mined and shipped $320 million worth of sand from Barbuda in 1983. The value of that sand, he said, is now worth $700 million – indicating that it was a good start for the island to support itself if given in the form of reparations.

“What are we getting from the central government now that we cannot do without,” he questioned, saying, “In a marriage there must be mutual respect. If you want to call us your little sister, then make sure your little sister has on shoes.”

“We always wanted it [secession] but it never got to this level,” Walker stressed.

He told Browne that Barbuda’s future is not a flippant issue but one that Barbudans are very passionate about.

The MP said he does not know what will happen to him as he fights for the betterment of Barbuda but he said he will continue to stand up for what he believes in.

Contribution also came from Attorney General Steadroy ‘Cutie’ Benjamin who put forward what he said was the “true position” in law on the ownership, tenure and right to land on Barbuda.

Most of his presentation bordered on land issues, as he called on Walker to support the government’s efforts to create private-driven work for Barbudans.

MP Sir Robin Yearwood also began his contribution before Parliament was adjourned. The meeting of the Lower House continues this morning from 9.30.

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