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What’s past is prologue

Politicians the world over have a singular talent for identifying old grievances which can be depended on to yield occasional rewards in the form of popular support and votes. Whether this gift owes more to a vulture's nose than an eagle's eye is largely a matter of personal opinion. But the fact remains that revisiting ancient grudges is an assured way for any political faction lacking in new ideas to reap tangible and immediate benefits, at least in the short-term.

This week's march on Government House was the entirely predictable equal and opposite reaction to the bewildering decision by George Fergusson to defer action on an Opposition motion calling for an inquiry into the history of land expropriation in Bermuda.

The subject, freighted as it is by decades of accumulated folklore and myth surrounding the compulsory acquisition of hundreds of acres of Tucker's Town, remains an emotional flashpoint in the Bermudian psyche. Frankly, Parliamentarian Walton Brown's call for a commission offered the best opportunity Bermuda has ever had to set the historical record straight, to dispel the legends and to finally bury this most vexing and persistent of topics.

While Mr. Brown's motivations in calling for a commission are beyond question or reproach, there's no doubt some of his Parliamentary colleagues were happy to exploit his entirely legitimate concerns for partisan political advantage.

Just three years ago, after all, the then Progressive Labour Party Government all but repudiated similar historical and cultural issues raised by the Commission for Uprooting Racism in Bermuda (CURB) and environmental lobbyists during a debate surrounding the contentious Tucker's Point Special Development Order. While expressing sympathy for those descended from families whose property was expropriated in Tucker's Town between 1920 and 1923, PLP Senators said they had an obligation to “look after the people of today” and were dismissive of those who sought to “bring in historical events to an environmental debate.“

There had been a nakedly self-serving about-face by this week, of course, when the PLP saw the opportunity for some unparalleled political point scoring.

The Governor, acting on the worst advice imaginable, set in train events which led to Tuesday's protest march by initially appearing to reject Parliament's call for an inquiry and then attempting to amend his original position with a too-little, too-late clarification. Those arguing the PLP baited a trap for the Governor, knowing all along he would likely reject the call for an inquiry based on the woolly terms of reference contained in Mr. Brown's motion, are overlooking the fact it's one he proceeded to walk into with eyes wide open.

Earlier, of course, Government allowed the entire manufactured crisis to develop in the first place by failing to recognise the many potential advantages of backing such a public airing of Bermuda's long history of compulsory acquisitions. Instead they fixating on the one perceived drawback. The associated question of additional compensation for the descendents of those whose property was expropriated in Tucker's Town or during the construction of the US bases during World War Two was never so much a side issue as a complete non-issue. Anyone who accepted a cheque for their property in Tucker's Town, St. David's or Southampton entered into a legally binding contract which their families cannot revisit at this very late stage.

What could have been a win-win situation for the Opposition and Government – not to mention the wider Bermudian community -- instead became a winner-take-all route for the PLP, a wildly one-sided outcome which its strategists would not have dared entertain in their fondest imaginings just a few weeks ago.

Government has suffered a self-inflicted wound on an epic scale. It required a complete failure of the political imagination not to grasp that what started with poor St. David's MP Suzann Roberts-Holshauser being rounded on by One Bermuda Alliance colleagues in the House of Assembly for siding with Mr. Brown's proposal could all too easily escalate into a situation where thousands of demonstrators would be rounding on the Governor for supposedly defying the people's will.

Some of the more fraught voices in the Opposition ranks have, of course, been heard in recent days rattling off stock arguments about how the expropriation issue has come to symbolise all of the ostensibly irreparable divisions in Bermudian society. This is a somewhat understandable prejudice but hardly one conducive to rational thinking or sound judgements. History, after all, can never be reduced to a simplistic series of social, racial or cultural antagonisms. The river of events which has carried us to our present point has been shaped by many factors, some of them local, others global in nature, all of them contributing to the course Bermuda has charted over the last four centuries. And conflict is never the sole motivating principle in any community. Bermudians have always shared common interests and common values along with the recognition they have a common destiny on this tiny, fragile speck of land which looks like nothing less than a careless cartographer's ink stain on most world maps. Our commonalities tend to outweigh our differences and it is distressing these bonds have once again been allowed to be overshadowed by a combination of political opportunism on the one hand and sheer political negligence on the other.

In 2011, during the same Senate debate when the PLP Government argued its primary duty was to “look after the people of today”, Opposition representative Michael Dunkley talked about the historical significance of the Tucker's Town and St. David's expropriations. He said: “It is well known in years gone by black people didn't get the fair shake they deserved …

“We need to make sure we learn. We need to remember the sacrifices of many who paved the way for where we are today. History is poorly reported and poorly respected. We can do better and we must do better.”

He was absolutely right. And what a shame it is these sterling convictions appear to have slipped the current Premier's mind when the OBA response to Mr. Brown's motion was being crafted. We either do finally bury this subject or we must be prepared for it to continue periodically burying us as we attempt to move forward.

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Published July 17, 2014 at 9:00 am (Updated July 17, 2014 at 2:53 pm)

What’s past is prologue

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