House votes to ask the people if they want to go it alone

Bermudians will have their say on Independence this summer -- likely in July, Deputy Premier the Hon. Irving Pearman said last night.

Bermudians will have their say on Independence this summer -- likely in July, Deputy Premier the Hon. Irving Pearman said last night.

The House of Assembly passed the Independence Referendum Act in a 20-18 vote, over strong protests from the Opposition Progressive Labour Party, but with full support from United Bermuda Party backbenchers who fought the measure over the last year.

While the PLP accused Government of lacking leadership by having no position for or against Independence, "people want to be asked -- particularly on issues as substantive as this,'' Mr. Pearman said.

He described the planned referendum as pure democracy.

Moments later, outside the House, he left no doubt how he would vote.

"I've never felt someone else should be responsible for me and my behaviour -- it's up to me,'' he said.

While the UBP remains split on Independence, the vote closed a sorry chapter in its 31-year history. Last year, a similar bill was defeated in the Senate, while another one was lost in the House on first reading. "There's no doubt that Bermuda will be relieved to an extent that this measure is passed tonight and we can get on with other things that concern the Country,'' Mr. Pearman told the House.

He felt the referendum should be held "sooner rather than later,'' and said a committee that prepared a discussion paper on Independence would soon start issuing positions on various Constitutional issues.

The bill must still pass the Senate, where it is set for debate on April 5. It also must receive Royal Assent from the Governor, Lord Waddington.

Having brought into line opponents in its own party, the ruling UBP still has the PLP to contend with. Minutes after the vote, Opposition Leader Mr.

Frederick Wade said he may urge his supporters to boycott the referendum -- or even to vote "no.'' The PLP supports Independence, but "it would not be a vote against Independence,'' Mr. Wade said. "It's a vote against deciding by that measure.'' The PLP had three options, he said. Boycott, vote no, or vote yes.

"It's not going to be difficult for us to decide what to do,'' said Mr. Wade, who has called for Independence to be decided in a general election. "We've always had a very clear position on this matter.'' But, after nearing self-destruction in an internal debate that raged off and on since Premier the Hon. Sir John Swan first raised Independence in December of 1993, last night was a chance for the UBP Government to revel in a united front. Not even Tuesday's road accident involving Deputy Speaker Mr. Tim Smith -- which left him in hospital yesterday and unable to vote -- was able to derail the vote.

As part of a deal reached on Thursday, backbenchers who helped defeat a similar referendum bill last year came on board. The Hon. Ann Cartwright DeCouto and Mr. Trevor Moniz had abstained in the vote last year, while Dr.

David Dyer was absent from the House. Yesterday, all three voted with the Government. So did Tourism Minister the Hon. C.V. (Jim) Woolridge, who was sometimes seen as a question mark.

Under the deal, a simple plurality will still decide the issue. But 40 percent of Bermuda's electorate would have to vote in favour of Independence for the question to be answered yes. That means a strong turn-out would likely be needed. If Bermuda had 35,000 registered voters, 14,000 would have to vote in favour of Independence for a mandate to exist. If only 70 percent, or 24,500 voters turned out, 57 percent would have to favour Independence to meet the 14,000-voter test.

Mr. Pearman said he suggested the formula as a way out of the party's impasse.

A similar requirement was used in a vote on Scottish Independence, so it is one Westminster is comfortable with, he said.

Mr. Moniz, who complained he never saw the Green Paper on Independence until it came to the House, said Government had also promised to discuss its Independence position papers with the entire caucus before making decisions.

And Mr. Pearman said if the referendum ended in a "no'' vote, Government would not raise Independence again for the life of this Parliament.

Mr. Wade said the anti-Independence forces in the UBP had won the day. "I think the deal they made was support the referendum bill and we will kill the Independence at the referendum,'' he said.

For its part, the PLP will not even raise Independence as a major policy plank in the next general election if Bermudians vote no in the referendum. But if the vote is no, Sir John should resign, Mr. Wade said.

Mr. Pearman said the most important issue was that the people would have "a voice.'' And, "I think we will have an excellent turn-out,'' he said. "If I had to make a guess at it, I would tell you it's going to be 80 percent.'' Government voted down two amendments proposed by the PLP. One would have delayed the referendum until after the next general election, while the other would have prevented an estimated 300 non-Bermudians on the electoral register from voting in the next election.

The United Kingdom subjects are still able to vote in elections because they were in Bermuda prior to 1976. "Why should non-Bermudians decide the destiny of Bermuda?'' asked Opposition MP Ms Renee Webb. "It is ridiculous.'' But Health and Social Services Minister the Hon. Quinton Edness said it would be wrong to "take away rights of persons living in this Country who have had those established rights.''

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