A tribute to the BVI London Office
When former Chief Minister and Minister of Finance the late Ralph T. O’Neal and his administration successfully acquired BVI House in July 2002 to set up the BVI London Office, it was with a clear understanding that the British Virgin Islands’ national interests had grown to a point where the territory needed a permanent diplomatic presence in Britain and Europe that would also serve as a diplomatic gateway to the rest of the world.
Over the past two decades, the BVI London Office has served the Government and people of the BVI very well. Its primary functions have been to:
• Maintain the BVI’s relations with the key institutions within the British political system, including the British Government, British Parliament and local council governments
• Diplomatically engage the European Union, Commonwealth and countries represented in London’s diplomatic corps
• Advance the BVI’s economic interests in regard to financial services, tourism, trade and investment
• Support BVI students and BVI citizens in Britain and Europe
The London Office’s finest hour came in 2017 when it co-ordinated and led the local government’s initial international crisis response to Hurricane Irma after the Category 5 storm devastated the territory and knocked out communications that left the islands cut off from the outside world. The BVI London Office worked in conjunction with BVI House Asia, the external offices of the BVI Financial Services Commission and BVI Tourist Board, and BVI government officials operating outside of the territory to respond to the disaster and engage with the British Foreign Secretary at the time, Boris Johnson, and other British Cabinet Ministers and senior officials on the mobilisation of humanitarian assistance to the islands.
During that emergency period, the BVI London Office was the country’s voice internationally. Thereafter, the office continued to mobilise support for the territory through co-operation with Britain, the EU, the Commonwealth, the United Nations, World Bank and the Caribbean community of Caricom.
In the financial services arena, the BVI London Office has been instrumental in the Government’s efforts to protect the financial services industry, especially after the release of the Panama Papers in 2016. The office played a pivotal role in the negotiations led by former premier and Minister of Finance Orlando D. Smith, which secured an initial settlement between the Overseas Territories and British Government on public registers of beneficial ownership. In 2018, the BVI London Office took the jurisdiction’s fight all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office at No 10 Downing Street after the British Government subsequently reversed its policy.
In the EU, the office successfully co-chaired with the European Commission the EU-OCT Financial Services Partnership Working Party between 2014 and 2018, which facilitated policy dialogue on international tax, among other things. This culminated in the BVI London Office also co-chairing a high-level dialogue on tax blacklisting between the EU, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and Overseas Countries and Territories in 2018.
In terms of international leadership, between 2014 and 2015, the BVI London Office served as chair of the Overseas Countries and Territories Association in Brussels, during which time it secured the participation of the EU’s European Commissioner for International Development, Neven Mimica, at the 15th OCT-EU Forum held in the BVI in 2015 hosted by Mr Smith. The outcome has resulted in the BVI’s receipt of more than $3 million in development assistance from the EU. The BVI London Office also served as chair of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association in London in 2016 and successfully led the OTs’ negotiations with the British Government to establish a UK-OTs Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit in 2017.
Beyond Britain and Europe, the BVI London Office has directly supported the strengthening of engagement between the BVI and UN. From 2016 to 2018, the office represented the BVI as a vice-chair of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean’s Caribbean Development and Co-operation Committee. On numerous other occasions the BVI London Office has also provided representation on the BVI Government’s delegations to UN meetings, including the UN Oceans Conference (2017), COP 21 Paris Climate Change Meeting (2015), UN Third International Conference on Small-Island Developing States (2014), UNFCCC COP 19 (2013) and the Convention on Biological Diversity COP 11 (2012). Notably, after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria, the office represented the BVI at a special meeting at UN Headquarters in New York between the foreign ministers of Britain, France, Netherlands, the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and other parties affected by the storms.
In its capacity as a consular office and cultural centre, the BVI London Office has been a gathering place and refuge for students and residents over the years. The office has also advocated for greater benefits within Britain for BVI students. In 2021, the BVI London Office worked in collaboration with other OTs to successfully lobby the British Government to allow OT students to apply for British loans for undergraduate studies. In earlier years, the office also helped UKOTA lobby for home fees — ie, in-state tuition — for OT students at British universities, which came into effect in 2007. In terms of consular support, it is highly notable that in 2020, the BVI London Office played a critical role in the evacuation of students back to the BVI during Britain’s Covid-19 lockdown.
Finally, BVI House is also the location of the BVI Tourist Board UK Office with whom the BVI London Office has had a complementary working relationship in advancing the economic interests of the territory and responding to emergencies such as the 2017 hurricanes.
I pay tribute to the late Premier and Minister of Finance, Ralph T. O’Neal, for his vision in acquiring BVI House and establishing the BVI London Office more than two decades ago. In his own words at the official opening ceremony in September 2002, Mr O’Neal said the BVI London Office was a “milestone in the continued development of the territory, of which all British Virgin Islanders should be proud. It will promote all the interests of the territory, including tourism, investment promotions, financial services and training, as well as serve as a centre for BVI students studying in the United Kingdom. We believe that not only is the purchase of this property a sound investment financially, but a vitally important investment in the way in which we are able to represent our economy and our interests in the world at large in the future. The office will provide in London a day-to-day focus of a kind we have not had before”.
I also acknowledge all of the persons who have had the privilege of serving in the capacity of director of the BVI London Office/BVI Representative in Britain and the EU, including Bowen Wells (director pro tempore, 2002-03), Lorna Smith (director, 2004-05), Hadassah Ward (interim director, 2005-06), Dawn Smith (director, 2006-09), Kedrick Malone (director, 2009-14), Elise Donovan (interim director, August-December 2018), Sandra Besson PhD (acting director, June-July 2018 and January-June 2019), and Tracy Bradshaw (acting director, July 2019 to present).
May the BVI London Office continue to serve the Government and people of the British Virgin Islands with excellence in advancing the national interests of the territory!
• Benito Wheatley, Special Envoy of the British Virgin Islands Government and the Premier’s Adviser on International Relations, was Director of the BVI London Office/BVI Representative to Britain and the European Union from 2014 to 2018
• Serving members of staff at the BVI London Office include Siobhan Flax (deputy director), Nicholas Jeria (senior consular and protocol officer), Ola Tunde Lana (facilities and security officer), Kenneskie Manning (accountant) and Yvonne Grant (consular officer). Former members of staff include Geraldine Ritter-Freeman, Luce Hodge-Smith, Lizette George, Lizette Vanterpool, June Smith-Bramble, Virginia O’Neal, Avril Henry, Linda Varlack, Emily Gerorge, Aliston Simmonds, Mitchelynne Bassue and Brian McKarkiel-Powell