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PLP recalls ‘date with destiny’ 20 years ago

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Historic night: Dame Jennifer Smith, the country’s new leader takes power, flanked by Dennis Lister, left, and Ewart Brown

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Progressive Labour Party’s “date with destiny” election victory.

The party’s first triumph at the polls brought the party in from the cold of 35 years in Opposition and gave Bermuda an alternative government for the first time since the party system began.

Dennis Lister, the Speaker of the House, reminisced about the 1998 night to remember as MPs returned to the House of Assembly today.

Mr Lister said victory for the party, which took 26 seats to the United Bermuda Party’s 14, was “in the air” on polling day.

He said: “What was clear from the atmosphere was that change was coming and it was real this time.

“We had times before when it felt close, but this time it was really happening.”

Mr Lister was MP for Sandys North alongside Eugene Cox under the former two-seat constituency system.

He said the 1998 contest was “an easy election”.

Mr Lister added: “The voting community were very much ready for this change. The response on the doorstep was that this would be the time.”

The United Bermuda Party, which later combined with the Bermuda Democratic Alliance to form the One Bermuda Alliance, was deposed.

The Royal Gazette editorial said after the election that “only the most optimistic” of the ruling party’s supporters expected another win.

Jennifer Smith, now Dame Jennifer, who led her party to its first victory, gave a victory speech to jubilant crowds in Court Street in Hamilton after the results were announced.

Mr Lister said many remembered the sea of young faces outside the PLP’s Alaska Hall headquarters.

But he said: “My view was that the seniors rejoiced more. People thought they would have died before seeing change come.

“They were that far along in age, living through the struggles and now on the downside of life, thinking their eyes would be closed before they saw real change happen.

“Afterwards, I spent a lot of time talking to seniors who were overjoyed talking about what they had experienced to bring that change. It was indescribable — they were so pleased to be alive to see it.”

The Speaker’s role is non-political and Parliament today is expected to carry on as normal.

But the party spirit is expected to break out in earnest at the PLP annual banquet tomorrow — with Dame Jennifer among the speakers.

Mr Lister said that looking back on the past 20 years was “bittersweet, in that having been part of the victory in 1998, I can’t necessarily share in the celebrations as Speaker”.

He added: “That first Cabinet settled in quickly and got down to business.

“Comparing it to the current government, they have experience from before — the first did not.

“But we were committed as a team that worked extremely hard and that unity as a team is what drives us to continue to deliver.”

The PLP’s election platform in 1998 promised “a New Bermuda”.

But Mr Lister said 20 years on, some work remained undone. He added: “In a general sense, there were parts of that original vision that still have to be fulfilled.

“I would assume that the leadership of the party understands that.”

What they said ...

Reactions reported 20 years ago as the Progressive Labour Party took a historic landslide win over the United Bermuda Party:

• “It was slaughter, a bloody slaughter” — David Petty, the UBP’s Pembroke East candidate, reacts to the final election results.

• “They were saying that it was time for a black government and not acknowledging that there are blacks in the UBP government,” — Dame Pamela Gordon, the deposed UBP premier.

• “This is a sweet victory for us. The country sent a message for a change. They have shown their confidence in a PLP government. I’m so very happy.” — Dennis Lister, then the PLP MP for Sandys North.

• “Thank God I have lived to see this day. We know now, for the first time ever, that there will be a PLP government. And I can promise that we will govern with all of Bermuda in mind.” — Dame Lois Browne Evans, the former Opposition leader.

• “Well, that certainly wasn’t on the radar.” — an unnamed UBP adviser.