Progress on UK talks

Bill of rights proposal nears consensus

Four days of talks between a Cayman Islands negotiating team and a delegation from the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office led to ‘encouraging’ progress in formulating a modernised constitution.

Leader of Government Business Kurt Tibbetts characterised the negotiations, which took place Monday through Thursday of last week, as ‘intense, constructive and sometimes robust’.

‘We made significant headway on a number of key issues,’ he said at a press briefing Friday. ‘We are increasingly optimistic that with continued hard work, cooperation and a spirit of compromise, we will end up with a document that the vast majority of the people of Cayman can support.’

Mr. Tibbetts specifically mentioned the bill of rights as a contentious issue that gained a lot of consensus during the talks.

During the public meetings conducted by the government and the opposition earlier this year, the bill of rights was easily the most discussed and controversial element of the proposed changes to the constitution.

Progress on UK talks

Many residents and groups like the Cayman Ministers Association expressed concern during the meetings about having a bill of rights, especially one enshrined in a constitution, because they feared it would open the door to more permissive lifestyles that conflict with Caymanian culture and values.

The CMA and others said that if there were to be a bill of rights here, then it should be in the form of legislation rather than enshrined in the constitution. Their thinking was a bill of rights enacted in legislation could be more easily changed if the country felt it necessary to do so.

Prior to last week’s meetings, there were still some lingering doubts about whether the UK insisted on a bill of rights enshrined in a new constitution. However, in the first session of the meetings – the only part of the proceedings that were open to the public – Ian Hendry, the leader of the FCO delegation, reiterated the position that the British Government would not agree to a new constitution that did not include a bill of rights.

As a compromise, the government prepared a draft bill of rights that reflected the ‘Caymanian values, culture and mores, while at the same time protecting the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual’, Mr. Tibbetts said, adding that the draft document was circulated to all of the delegates at the talks.

‘I am happy to say that, by and large, [the draft document] has gained substantial approval, including from the opposition,’ he said. ‘As Mr. Hendry cautions… nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, but this is a hugely encouraging sign. Government wishes to place on record its thanks to the stakeholders, including the opposition, for their support.’

Leader of the Opposition McKeeva Bush agreed there had been a great deal of compromise on the bill of rights issue, all though he said there were still a couple of points to work out. In particular, he said both the opposition and the Cayman Ministers Association had some reservations with the section of the draft bill of rights that dealt with the right to marriage. He said, however, that the issue was only with a few words in the section that they were afraid could open up the interpretation of marriage beyond that of one man to one woman.

Sticking points

More contentious during the meetings were the government’s ‘rebalancing of power’ proposals, such as changing the role of the Governor and moving to a full ministerial government of which the attorney general, financial secretary and chief secretary would no longer be a part.

Mr. Tibbetts said there was ‘broad agreement in principle among all stakeholders at the talks, with the notable exception of the opposition, who still seem to be taking the position that we should retain the status quo and that the constitutional relationship with the UK is not in need of modernisation.’

On hearing Mr. Tibbetts’ comments, Opposition MLA Rolston Anglin, disagreed with his assessment that there was ‘board agreement in principle’ between all the stakeholders at the talks with exception of the opposition’.

‘The major plank of the government’s proposals for increased autonomy was rejected outright by the UK,’ he said. ‘Government got slammed for their push for power.’

Cabinet Minister Alden McLaughlin didn’t believe the UK rejected anything outright.

‘I think what we’ve found through these negotiations, and what needs to be fully understood, is that the UK has not rejected outright any of the government’s proposals,’ he said at Friday’s media briefing. ‘It’s a question of how far we get in terms of what the government’s proposals are. No sensible group of negotiators that I’ve ever known goes to the table with their final positions set out in matters.

‘I know there’s a lot of carry on about how the UK treated the government’s proposals… but it’s important to know and appreciate that, in the negotiations, what was put forward was just as they were described as – proposals.’

Mr. McLaughlin said that when the working draft of the new constitution came back from the UK, ‘we will have a better sense of how far… the UK are prepared to accept some of the government’s proposals.’

The road forward

The next step in the constitutional modernisation process will be getting the working draft of the new constitution back from the UK, which Mr. McLaughlin said would happen within two to three weeks.

That draft, however, will probably not cover all points, Mr. McLaughlin said.

‘[It is] likely there will be some gaps, as Mr. Hendry describes it, in that document where the issues are still so complex or so unresolved that we need to talk again before we actually write anything down at all.’

The next round of constitution modernisation talks are scheduled to take place in London in early December, Mr. Tibbetts said, adding that in the meantime, efforts will be made to work out areas of difference with the opposition.

Mr. Tibbetts said it was hoped to receive the draft version of the constitution – to which voters will be asked to give their consent in the May referendum – by January at the latest.