Big interview: Governor Roper on the big issues

It has been a busy period for UK and Cayman relations. Cayman Compass reporter James Whittaker caught up with Governor Martyn Roper about plans for a new regiment, rights for same-sex couples, constitutional change and his recent visit to Buckingham Palace.

Regiment to be ready for hurricane season

Cayman can expect to have a fighting force of around 50 “assault pioneers” in place for the height of hurricane season next year, Governor Martyn Roper believes.

Roper said he was delighted with the progress on assembling Cayman’s new regiment following a visit from a UK Ministry of Defence team last week.

And he revealed the new force will involve six full-time officers, who will be appointed in the coming months. They will be charged with assembling a further 50 reservists – part-time recruits who will receive basic training and can be deployed in an emergency scenario.

The six officers will receive training at the UK military academy at Sandhurst.

Roper said their primary mission would be disaster readiness. He said the Cayman regiment could help after a hurricane on the islands or elsewhere in the region.

“It is important that we have people trained to clear the airport. To move kit around and to clear roads,” he said.

“Having that capability on the island should the worst happen and we are hit by a major crisis, I think that is a real positive for the islands and a real step forward.”

Matthew Forbes, the head of the Office of the Governor, said the troops would be put through basic infantry training – a requirement for all army reservists. Beyond that, their main training will be as “assault pioneers”.

He said, “That is the soldier that can go into the disaster area with chainsaws and get the roads and the runways cleared and have basic engineering skills to help in those emergency situations.”

Ultimately the force will be similar to the regiment in Bermuda, which is involved in regular training exercises and is a vital part of the community’s post-hurricane response team. Bermuda used to recruit troops through mandatory conscription of men aged 18-30. Roper said those methods have been discontinued in that territory and there are no plans for anything like that here.

He said the Cayman Regiment would be a volunteer force. Many of the details are still to be finalised but he said it would likely be similar to the UK Army Reserve – formerly known as the territorial army – where recruits are paid on a per-diem basis and are ready to be mobilised in an emergency.

Forbes said the MoD team would be compiling a report and the exact details would be finalised and put through Cabinet in time to assemble the regiment early next year.

Roper cited the project as an example of collaboration between the UK and Cayman.

“This is an exciting new development for Cayman and we hope to make as much progress as possible before the next hurricane season.”

Governor Martyn Roper and his wife Elisabeth, pictured at Buckingham Palace, after their meeting with Queen Elizabeth II last week.

A visit with the queen

Governor Martyn Roper received an audience with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace last week.

Roper said the visit was a “wonderful occasion” and a chance for him to talk privately with the monarch.

The honour is afforded to all governors and ambassadors representing the UK before or during their post. He and his wife Elisabeth met with the queen in her private audience room along with three other ambassadors.

“Her majesty was very well informed about the Cayman Islands and fondly recalled her visits here in the 90s and 80s and we had a wide-ranging discussion about a number of issues,” he said.

“She is someone who takes a very close interest in the overseas territories and sends her best wishes to everyone here.”

He said the queen had recalled visiting the various districts and meeting the people of Cayman.

“She is an incredible lady and it was a wonderful day,” he said.

UK could be forced to intervene on same-sex unions

The UK will be forced to intervene if Cayman’s legislators fail to pass legislation allowing legally recognised same-sex unions, Roper said.

The governor said the judgment from the Court of Appeal in the case of Chantelle Day and Vickie Bodden Bush left little room to manoeuvre for either local legislators or the UK.

He welcomed Premier Alden McLaughlin’s statement accepting that government had been in breach of the Bill of Rights on this issue and that some form of legislation for civil unions would need to be passed in the new year.

“I think we have to give the premier and the local government time to do that,” Roper said, “but I think the premier was also absolutely right when he said if the Legislative Assembly doesn’t act then it is inevitable at some point that the UK will have to act through an Order in Council.

“There is a breach in the rights and we have to comply with the law.”

Following recent constitutional changes, he said the “direction of travel” was towards more powers for Cayman and the UK did not want to intervene unless it had to.

“It is far better that the Legislative Assembly assumes its responsibility and takes action rather than leaves it to the UK to step in later,” he said.

But he believes if that does not happen the UK will have no choice.

“From what I understand of the legal position, I do not see how it would be possible for the UK government not to seek to intervene.”

The governor also expressed concern about recent comments in the Legislative Assembly, principally from opposition independent legislator Anthony Eden, calling for the deportation of Leonardo Raznovich, a former law professor who has advocated strongly for rights for same-sex couples.

Roper said, “We are governed by the rule of law. As I understand, he is here legally and we also have freedom of speech, we live in a democracy, so I am very concerned about those comments.

Orders in Council a ‘red line’ for UK

The right to issue Orders in Council for Cayman is a “red line” for the UK in any discussions over extended autonomy for British Overseas Territories, Governor Roper confirmed.

He said the recently announced constitutional changes, giving greater independence to Cayman, were a “significant achievement” for local lawmakers.

He paid tribute to Premier Alden McLaughlin for leading the negotiating team and to then Opposition Leader Ezzard Miller for ensuring bi-partisan support for Cayman’s position.

“The fact that there was cross-party support had a big impact on enabling these discussions to go forward,” he said.

The talks stemmed from the uproar in Cayman following a UK Parliament decision to attach an amendment to an anti-money laundering bill, calling for an Order in Council to mandate public registers of beneficial ownership for companies in the overseas territories.

The agreed constitutional changes give Cayman a right to be consulted if something like that happens in future.

The premier will be consulted in writing if the UK government is considering legislation that would directly affect Cayman. He will have the opportunity to express the views of Cayman’s legislators on the issue and that opinion will be made available to UK parliamentarians before a vote takes place.

Roper acknowledged it would still be open to UK politicians to ignore the advice if they chose.

“It gives a right to be consulted which wasn’t there before and Cayman is the first overseas territory to have that specifically written in the Constitution. That is a big step forward whichever way you look at it,” he said.

He said the “balance of responsibilities” remains broadly the same. The UK wants Cayman to have “maximum autonomy” while maintaining the power to ensure its “obligations and responsibilities can be carried out given Cayman’s status as an overseas territory.”

The UK is signatory to various international human rights treaties, for example, and is accountable. He said Orders in Council were necessary for that reason

“That is a red line for the UK; it has to have the power to step in and make orders in council on any matter – that hasn’t changed.”

Governor renews call for strong referendum turnout

Governor Roper reiterated his call for a high turnout for the cruise port referendum, currently planned for 19 Dec.

He said he had been in close touch with election observers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, meeting with the group during his recent visit to the UK. And he said he was happy with the job of the Cayman Islands Elections Office and committed to ensuring a focus on “good governance”.

Roper reiterated his belief that everyone, including civil servants, should feel free to vote in the poll.

“Civil servants are also citizens and have democratic rights and it is for each of them to decide which way to vote. There should be no doubt that they have every right to go out and vote on Dec. 19.”

He acknowledged that a memo from the deputy governor had made it clear to government workers that they should not be involved in campaigning. But he said their duty to be impartial and neutral in their professional roles did not extend to the ballot box.

“The vote is a secret ballot and my message to civil servants is to go out and exercise your right to vote.”

Roper added that the topic of the cruise port was the issue that he had received most representations on in his time as governor.

“I recognise that government sincerely believes it is in Cayman’s best interests to move ahead with this but there are many others who believe it is not in Cayman’s best interests,” he said.

“I hope there is a strong turnout. It is good for our democracy. It is good that there is voter engagement in an issue as important as this.”