It is traditional for the Cayman Islands to celebrate the first Monday in July as Constitution Day. This is when we proudly observe the grant, on 4 July 1959, of our own written Constitution.
This year our celebration takes on new meaning. It heralds the new Constitution that we, the people, approved in May in our first-ever referendum vote, signalling stronger internal self-government, and including for the first time, a Bill of Rights for the people.
The new Constitution will become effective once all implementation tools are in place, and we look forward to yet another major milestone in the development of our constitutional history and democratic government.
But there is more to make this year’s commemoration extra special. Saturday, 4 July, marks the Golden Jubilee, the 50th anniversary of our written Constitution.
Of course, our democratic heritage goes back 177 years. Sowing the seeds of our democratic tradition was a meeting promoting representative government, held at Pedro St. James on 5 December 1831. The first election of Representatives by the people to join the appointed Magistrates or Justices of the Peace, who had been responsible for the rule of law and order up to that point, followed five days later.
Cayman’s first Legislative Assembly of Justices and Vestry was born, forerunner of the present -day Parliament. Thus in 1832, Cayman’s unwritten Constitution came into effect. Although we were deemed a Dependency of Jamaica, we had sufficient autonomy to enact laws that had to receive the approval of the Governor of Jamaica.
It was a bicameral House where the laws passed by Vestrymen in their meeting required magistrates’ validation and assent in the other. The first Act was passed in this way in January 1832 legally establishing the Assembly, with the stipulation that there should be 21 Vestrymen or elected representatives.
Cayman’s political functions continued that way until 50 years ago, with periodic amendments being incorporated to suit the Islands’ needs. The Assembly’s membership also fluctuated, and by the mid 20th Century it comprised a Commissioner as President, 27 Justices of the Peace (formerly known as magistrates) and 27 vestrymen.
The Commissioner had wide powers, consolidating the administration, judicial and legislative functions of government.
We might take a moment now to consider that in the original House, male taxpayers were the only ones permitted to vote. It took almost another century for voting rights to be extended to all males between the ages of 18 and 60. And it would take 150 years for universal suffrage to be granted, extending voting rights to women.
The 1959 Constitution brought more significant changes: Thus the 27 elected vestrymen changed in both number and name. They became 12 representatives, with three members each for George Town and West Bay, two each for Bodden Town and the Sister Islands, and one each for North Side and East End.
The first written Constitution also changed the title of Commissioner to Administrator. Similarly, the terms ‘Legislative Assembly’ and ‘Executive Council’ replaced the Vestry.
The Assembly comprised 12 elected, three nominated and three official members. The Executive Council contained one nominated, two official and two members who were elected.
Much more has transpired since 4 July 1959. There has been subsequent constitutional advancements, the most significant being the Cayman Islands (Constitution) Order 1972 and its ten amending Orders which have been enacted in the years since.
These have given us our own Governor, Court of Appeal and have brought the membership of the Legislative Assembly to its present strength of a Speaker, 15 Elected Members and three Official Members. ‘Executive Council’ is now known as the Cabinet and Elected Members serving therein, as Ministers, with political leaders designated as The Leader of Government Business and the Leader of the Opposition.
This 50th anniversary is an opportune time to glance back through our history to gain real perspective of where we were and how far we have come.
Make no mistake: The Cayman Islands Constitution is testimony to the vibrancy and dynamism of our people. We have never hesitated to bring about change in a democratic and peaceful way. We still don’t.
We should be truly proud of our rich history, especially our constitutional heritage, because it underscores the importance we place on the rule of law and self- determination as an Overseas Territory of the UK.
This weekend, in celebration of our written Constitution’s 50th anniversary, I ask our churches, post offices, police stations, civic centres, schools and libraries to show civic pride by publicly and prominently displaying our National Flag and the Union Jack.
Let us take time out to give thanks and praise for the wisdom of our forbears. They not only carved out our democratic path, their sound decisions also paved it.
Let us pray to God that He continues to bless us and grant us sufficient wisdom to always cherish and sustain our heritage.
McKeeva Bush – Leader of Government Business