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‘We were a one-term government after that day’

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Then-One Bermuda Alliance MP Sylvan Richards watches the airport protests from the verandah of the House of Assembly. He was the only Member of Parliament apart from the Speaker to enter the Sessions House that day. (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

As he watched from the balcony of the House of Assembly, Sylvan Richards knew that what he was witnessing marked the end of the OBA as a government.

Mr Richards, who made it into the House just ahead of protesters blockading the gates, said he knew “it was all over” as he heard shouts and screams from the gates where police struggled with protesters.

He added: “We were a one-term government after that day. I knew it.

“There was no way we could get re-elected.”

Mr Richards likened the turmoil on December 2, 2016, to the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol in the US.

“That day was our version of it,” he said.

Mr Richards spoke ahead of the five-year anniversary of Bermuda’s worst public unrest since the riots of 1977.

By coincidence, that previous crisis also broke out on December 2 – exactly 39 years before.

Mr Richards witnessed both tumultuous occasions.

‘It proved to me that sometimes politicians don’t do what’s in the best interests of their constituents. They do what’s in their best interests of getting re-elected’

He recalled breaking into tears five years ago, watching civilian protesters blocking Parliament wrestle against police armed with pepper spray.

Mr Richards called December 2 “one of the saddest, most mournful and horrible things to witness – and in some ways, to be a part of”.

He said it irrevocably doomed any hope for an OBA government.

The party had overturned 14 years of Progressive Labour Party rule in 2012 – by a razor-thin margin at the polls.

The legislation up for debate, two Bills for a new airport terminal, had already been delayed more than once as the Opposition demanded more detail.

More than two years earlier, on November 10, 2014, the scheme for a public-private partnership was announced by a beaming Bob Richards.

The finance minister said it was “an historic agreement” to replace the ageing air terminal.

For the OBA, it stood to get hundreds of Bermudians working again at minimal cost to the public purse.

Airport revenues would finance the terminal through Canadian Commercial Corporation and CCC’s contractor, Aecon.

But for the Progressive Labour Party, smarting in defeat, the sole-sourced deal with CCC, and the lack of transparency that Mr Richards said was unavoidable in a P3, were a call to battle.

David Burt, the Leader of the Opposition, sent a mass e-mail the night before December 2 for protesters to demonstrate outside Parliament.

The People’s Campaign pressure group, also staunchly opposed to the airport deal, held a town hall meeting that night summoning supporters to the House for Friday.

Mr Richards said the OBA had held its own meeting the night before, to discuss the coming debate in Parliament.

“At the end, I told everybody in the room of my intention to get up extra early.

“I had a sense of foreboding.”

Legislators had been blocked from Parliament by the People’s Campaign, the PLP and a range of other demonstrators once before that year, in March, scuppering the OBA’s Pathways to Status immigration reforms.

On December 2, Mr Richards woke at 4.30am.

He packed his suit, parked away from Parliament, and managed to walk into the House unopposed.

“There was a small group, maybe five or six people, outside the Post Office.

“I heard one say, is that MP Richards? I just calmly walked in.”

The only other MP to make it inside ahead of protesters blocking the gates was Randy Horton, the Speaker.

One clerk also made it in before Parliament was “besieged”.

After a nap in the government lounge, Mr Richard came into the Chamber and was “upset and very disappointed nobody else made it in”.

It was too late. Despite calls to his colleagues, Mr Richards and Mr Horton spent the day in the House with the lone clerk.

Mr Richards’s wife brought him lunch, safely delivered by a policeman who handed it over the wall to Parliament grounds.

Looking Back: Sylvan Richards, a former Cabinet minister under the OBA, recalls his unique vantage on the ʽhorrible’ events of December 2, 2016 (File photograph)

Mr Richards said he was not witness to the Speaker’s grappling with whether or not to go ahead with Parliament.

“I can’t speak to that,” he said. “Speaker Horton was more than capable of making the decision. That was his House.”

But by the time Mr Horton reversed his earlier decision to proceed with the day’s business, as investigations showed, it was too late for police to call back the phalanx of officers on their way to clear the gates.

At about 1.15pm, when Mr Richards spotted police marching towards the gates, geared up to quell a riot, he “knew things were going to go pear-shaped”.

He watched from the balcony of the House as the unsuccessful tactic ended in protesters pepper-sprayed during the mêlée with outnumbered officers.

The gates held, but both police and members of the public were hurt before police withdrew.

“The only thing I’ve seen like that in my life was when I was 18, when they had the riots in town,” Mr Richards said, referring to the 1977 uprising.

“It was Bermudians against Bermudians, people against police.

“It was very upsetting, and I felt it could have totally been avoided.”

Other witnesses closer to the confrontation have said since that many of the seniors who turned out in 2016 could well have been among those on the streets of Hamilton for the explosion of anger sparked by the executions of Erskine “Buck” Burrows and Larry Tacklyn in 1977.

From his vantage, most of what Mr Richards saw was “pushing, shoving, people screaming”.

He recognised Members of Parliament among the crowd, and was aware of “older people getting pepper-sprayed”.

Mr Richards repeatedly called it “horrible”.

But he added: “Individuals out there prevented Parliament from conducting its constitutional business.

“I shed a tear. I felt people had been manipulated into being there. As politicians, we should not have allowed that to happen.

“I was very disappointed with the whole political process and lack of foresight. It could have been avoided.

“It was a turning point for me. I didn’t know if I wanted to continue in the political arena.”

Richards kicked out of House over pepper spray comment

Sylvan Richards was thrown out of Parliament in February 2017 when MPs returned after the shock of December 2.

Lawrence Scott of the PLP was telling the House about getting pepper sprayed during the commotion as he tried to help a senior, when Mr Richards commented: “You deserved it.”

The Speaker ordered him to leave, and he apologised upon returning the next week.

Mr Richards said in a recent interview he had “muttered”.

“It was a joke. The mike picked it up.”

He said had a friendly relationship with Mr Scott.

“The House is set up like a battlefield with a red carpet down the middle. Sometimes there’s bloodshed.

“People listen to Parliament and hear MPs going at each other, but it’s political theatre.”

He said he shared his feelings with his colleagues, including Michael Dunkley, then the Premier.

Mr Richards did not leave Sessions House until dark, after “a long, long, draining, emotional day”.

“It was terrible, depressing. I was very upset.

“Looking back, I felt that a snare was set, and we as a government walked right into it.

“It’s a day anyone there will never forget. Bermuda will still be talking about December 2 in 50 years.

“It just proved to me that sometimes politicians don’t do what’s in the best interests of their constituents. They do what’s in their best interests of getting re-elected.”