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House votes to end conscription

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All lined up: Royal Bermuda Regiment soldiers march along Front Street in Hamilton during the Remembrance Day Parade in 2016(Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Legislation to end conscription into the island’s military was passed in the House of Assembly last night.

Wayne Caines, Minster of National Security, said the Defence Amendment Act was “a once-in-a-generation chance to transform the Royal Bermuda Regiment into a bespoke hybrid organisation, which is more efficient, effective and professional”.

Mr Caines, a former officer in the RBR, said that conscription had “served Bermuda well over the years”.

But he added: “That said, the modern era dictates that the time has come for conscription into the Royal Bermuda Regiment to end, as is the case in each of the other Overseas Territories. I am confident that Bermuda will be the better for ending conscription.”

Mr Caines said his ministry had worked with the RBR to make sure the regiment would be able to sustain its volunteer numbers. He added: “The RBR will continue its extensive public relations campaigns and incentive programmes in order to attract men and women to serve.”

Mr Caines said a review by the RBR had been conducted over the past six months.

He added the report found that a total of 327 personnel, 28 officers and 299 soldiers, could carry out the work of the RBR.

The number is down from the 400 soldiers recommended in a 2014 report. Mr Caines said the review also focused on the creation of a coast guard.

He added: “The plan for the RBR Coast Guard is for the RBR to commence training now and perform the role alongside the Bermuda Police Service until the RBR Coast Guard is fully trained and completely take over the function.”

The new Coast Guard is expected to take over maritime security duties in April 2020.

Mr Caines said the RBR would recruit with “a promise to invest in those officers and soldiers who volunteer to serve Bermuda”.

He added: “Through training partners in Bermuda and overseas, the regiment will deliver a pathway of education and training that is second-to-none.

“In short, this is a very exciting time to be a member of the Royal Bermuda Regiment.”

Mr Caines said that he had met pressure group the Nine Colonels who “remain steadfast in their belief that conscription should not end”.

But he added that they were “open” to the recommendations of the latest review.

Mr Caines said: “They have made it clear that they would like to see a clear time continuum and firm undertaking by the Government that shows a commitment to enacting the key recommendations.”

Michael Dunkley, a former premier and shadow national security minister, said that he had always felt “very uncomfortable” about conscription.

He added: “I am glad that the day has come where we can deal with it.”

But Mr Dunkley added: “At the same time, we need to make sure that the RBR is in a position to effectively fill out their mandate.”

Lieutenant-Colonel David Burch, the Minister of Public Works admitted he was a “reluctant member” of the Regiment when he signed up.

He said he had been opposed to the abolition of conscription, but that he could see the benefits of the Act.

Colonel Burch added: “My own view on this has evolved. I get that times change and situations evolve.

“In order for this to be successful in terms of the survival of the Royal Bermuda Regiment, we require people who are in service to have the ability to convince young people that this is something they want to do.

“It must be aggressive and talk to young people where they are.”

Patricia Gordon-Pamplin, a One Bermuda Alliance backbencher, said: “There are some of our young people who didn’t want to be there but who will tell you in retrospect that they could not have had a more positive experience.

“I’m going to miss hearing the positive experiences from those who didn’t want to do it.”

Jamahl Simmons, the economic development minister, admitted he had been a “reluctant” conscript, but that the Regiment helped to “instil basic life skills”.

Long history: a Royal Bermuda Regiment soldier is shown on an exercise in Jamaica in 2016