Belize at the London Constitutional Conference: The People and the Belize Independence Constitution – Part III

By Dylan Vernon, (REAL STORY #3, 10 October 2023)

On Saturday 4th April 1981, a small Belizean government delegation boarded a flight at the Belize International Airport to begin a long journey to London to ‘negotiate’ Belize’s Independence Constitution with the British. This was just over one week after the National Assembly approved the Report of the Joint Select Committee on the White Paper on 27 March 1981. (See my Real Story #2 on this here). And it was only two days after Governor Hennessy declared a state of emergency to quell civil unrest over the Heads of Agreement. (This was the last failed pre-independence attempt to settle the Guatemala claim of Belize). However, the Belize Constitutional Conference proceeded as planned at Marlborough House from 6 to 14 April 1981.

Without a Full Team

In a cruel twist of political circumstances, the Father of the Nation, then Premier George Price, was not on that trans-Atlantic trip. In making the agonising decision not to go to London in the middle of the political crisis, Price became the only head of government in the Commonwealth Caribbean to be absent from his nation’s independence Constitutional Conference. (Governor Hennessy was also absent). Price appointed Senator and Deputy Premier C.L.B Rogers (the only person on the team who was also at the Constitutional Conference in London in 1963) to lead the Belize delegation. Four members of the House of Representatives, also members of the cabinet, made up the rest of the five-person team: V.H. Courtenay, who had drafted the White Paper and co-chaired the Joint Select Committee (JSC), F.H. Hunter, L.S. Sylvestre and D.L McCoy.

It is noteworthy that Sylvestre and McCoy, who did not serve on the JSC, were in London, but not Said Musa nor Florencio Marin, who had both been active members of the JSC. Marin was in political difficulty over allegations related to a Corozal shooting that resulted in a fatality and injuries related to the Heads of Agreement clashes. (He was eventually cleared of any involvement). Price clearly determined that Musa, then the Attorney General, was needed more at home. Assad Shoman was busy leading the government’s charge on explaining the Heads of Agreement. In effect, some of Belize’s ‘big PUP guns’ were missing in London.

Also missing in action were any representatives of the Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP), which boycotted the Conference for basically the same reasons it had shunned the JSC. The records show that the British wanted the UDP there, if only to give more credibility and unity to the Conference’s outcome. Nicholas Ridley, the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, had sent invitations on 22 March 1981 to the PUP to name five members and to the UDP to name three. As late as 28 March, the UDP, which had not yet officially said whether it would accept the invitation, urged the British to postpone the Constitutional Conference due to the unrest related to the Heads of Agreement. The records show that both the British and the PUP government seriously considered postponing the Conference but, among other things, did not want to be seen as being intimated by civil violence. Eventually, the British, with Price’s concurrence, did not postpone and the UDP cited this as another reason to boycott the Conference. As such, the depleted Belize delegation in London turned out to be all from the People’s United Party (PUP) government. All were male.

Unions Demand Seats

Also of interest is that the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) had advocated by letter of 25 March to the British that “representatives of this worker’s organization be invited as part of the Belize delegation” to the London talks. This would not have been unprecedented for Caribbean nations as unions had participated in a few constitutional conferences before. However, the NTUCB’s request was rebuffed over fears it would open the door to more non-government demands for a seat at the negotiating table.

At the same time the Conference was in session, Professor E. Laing, representing the Chamber of Commerce, along with Attorney Hubert Elrington, representing the Public Service Union held several meetings in London to advocate against aspects of the government’s proposals for the constitution (and against the Heads of Agreement).  They did succeed in seeing some British parliamentarians and were even granted a meeting by a senior UK Foreign and Colonial Office (FCO) official who reported up the channels.

How Did Belize’s Proposals Fare?

With the White Paper and the JSC Report as their guide, the Belize delegation met in 18 sessions with a large British side led by Nicholas Ridley, the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The British side prepared and shared numerous technical briefs on sections of the Constitution and on Belize’s preparations to become an independent nation in the international arena.

The sessions were mostly cordial, if not a tea party, with the British side, seemingly eager to get it done, agreeing to most proposals from the Belize side. Discussions were held and decisions were also made by the parties on a few matters that were not contemplated in the White Paper or its amendments.  However, what interests us most here now is how the proposals from the public consultations (that made it to the JSC’s Report) fared in London.

The record shows that of the 23 separate amendments made to the White Paper based on the public consultations, 16 were approved by the London Conference, two were approved in part, and five did not survive.  Among those ‘people’s proposals’ that did not survive London was the clause that contemplated a future change from a monarchical to a republican form of government. The British convinced the Belize side that it did not need to be specifically stated because parliament would have the power to do so through its amending powers at any time if it so desired.

Also not surviving were two proposals related to citizenship and the Belize Advisory Council, one proposal to punish crossing of the floor, and one to require two-thirds majority in the House for public emergency declarations that “democratic institutions in Belize are threatened by subversion.” The compromise on the latter was to require a two-thirds majority only for resolutions on revoking or extending of public emergencies. Of interest, is that during the Conference the British side made a fair number of references to the review of the White Paper done by Professor E. Laing, as commissioned by the Chamber of Commerce.

The Conference Report Omits a Key Decision

The decisions of the nine-day London Conference at Marlborough House were signed onto by the delegations and duly documented in the 14 April 1981 Report of the Belize Constitutional Conference. This history-making document would become the central basis for preparing the first draft of the Independence Constitution of Belize. However, one of the most consequential ‘decisions’ of that London Conference was not reflected in the Report: the first draft of the Constitution would be prepared by none other than the British themselves. Colonialism’s end and freedom day was still 159 days away.

Three weeks after the Belize delegation returned home from the London Constitutional Conference, it officially reported to Cabinet on 6 May 1981 on the differences between the amended White Paper and the Report of the Constitutional Conference. The Report was publicly released as information. There was negligible press and public attention. Belize’s national and international agenda was still dominated by the internal divisions and continuing negotiations with the British and Guatemala on the Heads of Agreement.

The British Draft Belize’s Constitution

Back in London, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) hurried the preparation of the first cut of the Independence Constitution – one of the usual final steps in seeing off its colonies. Bi-lateral actions on constitutional matters went largely quiet for a few weeks but there were side-line discussions on a few thorny issues during various international meetings on the Heads of Agreement – for example, in New York and London.

On 2 June 1981, and after relying heavily on legal language in existing constitutions of other Commonwealth countries, the legal team of the FCO produced the monumental first draft of the Belize Independence Constitution. On 3 June, four copies were sent from the FCO ‘by bag’ and one ‘by hand’ to Governor Hennessy with a request to “ensure that Harry Courtenay at least gets a quick look.” (Click here or on image to see letter from the UK National Archives.)

With the agreement of the Belize government copies were provided by the FCO to two other persons: one to Dr A.C. Bundu of the Commonwealth Secretariat, who had provided legal advice to the Belize Delegation in London; and one to R.C. Rattray, a prominent Jamaican lawyer and a former Attorney General under the Michael Manley government, and who had been engaged by Belize to provide constitutional advice.

The FCO requested that all comments on first draft must be received by 30 June so that the Belize Independence Bill, already being drafted, could get to the British Parliament before the summer recess – or it could not be done for a September independence day. While not yet publicly announced in Belize until 26 July 1981, Premier George Price had already informed the British that independence day would be on 21 September 1981. The key players on both sides knew that they had less than three months for all the official actions in both capitals to finalise the Independence Constitution.

 Final Compromises, Final Touches

Overall, the first cut of the Constitution prepared by the British legal drafters did not depart radically from what had been agreed in April and most changes were not substantive. But those who draft such consequential documents have the advantage of how things are put, what is emphasised or not, and of setting the textual basis for further negotiations. They were, indeed, some new bits and some missing bits. The Belize government, led by V.H. Courtenay and with input from its legal advisors, pointed to textual edits needed but also had to fight for a few key positions.

For example, the British side was, at this late stage, worried about including language in their Belize Bill on Belizeans who had abode in the United Kingdom being allowed to remain there after independence. Because this Bill needed to be passed by the UK Parliament, the FCO feared was that it would rehash the bitter partisan conflicts on immigration and right of abode around the British Nationality Act passed earlier in 1981. The Belize language on this, which had come from the JSC public consultations eventually remained essentially the same in the Independence Order.

As they did in 1963 with the self-government Constitution, the British side initially strongly opposed the need for the National Assembly of Belize to enact the Independence Constitution after the Belize Independence Order was issued by the Queen. The Belize side prevailed.

And the very popular people’s proposal for the Constitution to include the national symbols was a victim of timing: the two parties in Belize had not yet resolved this divisive matter. It was decided to simply note that the various national symbols would be prescribed by the National Assembly of Belize. And while the first draft of 2 June had 134 sections, it was agreed to remove three sections on electoral matters that were deemed more suited for the Representation of the People Act.

By July 1981, the Belize Independence Bill had begun its passage through the British parliamentary system so it could be presented to Queen Elizabeth II and her Privy Council — and so trigger the issuing by the Queen of ‘the Order’ for Belize’s independence.

Where were the people of Belize in all this historic constitution making? Find out in the fourth and concluding part in this series on the people and the constitution in my next Real Story post.

Note on sources: Apart from sources named or in the hyperlinks, this article drew on original sources in the Parliamentary Archives of the Belize National Assembly, in the holdings on Belize’s independence at the Belize National Archives, and in the UK National Archives, and on newspapers and news magazines of the time. Image with the Belize delegation is from the New Belize magazine of April 1981.

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