The People and the Belize Independence Constitution: Part II – The People Consulted?

By Dylan Vernon, (REAL STORY #2, 5 October 2023)

By 3 February 1981 when the Joint Select Committee (JSC) on the White Paper held is first (private) meeting, the People’s United Party (PUP) government already knew that it had just about two months before the Constitutional Conference in London to consult the people of Belize on the White Paper and prepare a report for the National Assembly. Otherwise, the tight schedule it had set for independence in 1981 would be in very serious jeopardy.

Pronto! Pronto!

Indeed, there was little time for consultations much less for education. In that first week of February, the PUP government put its still evolving plans to consult the people into high gear. Copies of the White Paper were sent to dozens of organisations and communities with a stated deadline for comments by 25 February 1981 – an eye-popping three-week turnaround! The JSC made public announcements on Radio Belize informing of district-level public sessions and how copies could be procured or read.

So it was that the JSC crammed nine public consultations on the White Paper into a rushed two-week period between 16 February and 2 March of that eventful year of independence. This meant, for example, that the people in the first session in Punta Gorda on 16 February had less than two weeks to review the document even if they got copies.  Three sessions were held in Belize City, one in Belmopan, one in San Ignacio and the four others in the other district towns.

Although I have not located records with total numbers of all attendees (they may not exist), newspaper reports imply that the sessions were well attended, even if mostly by party people. However, it is possible to use the JSC’s proceedings’ reports to calculate the number of those in attendance who actually spoke.  A total of 527 people seemed to have directly addressed the JSC nationwide: 45 total in the three Belize City sessions, 17 in Belmopan, 57 in Corozal Town, 277 in Dangriga, 44 in Orange Walk, 70 in Punta Gorda, and 17 in San Ignacio. Most spoke to the JSC as individual citizens, a few on behalf of organisations or communities and, while women also participated, the vast majority were men.

From the number of identical statements read in of support for the White Paper, it was evident that the PUP machinery had some success in mobilizing party members to speak up at the some of the sessions – especially in Dangriga, Punta Gorda, Orange Walk and Corozal.  However, it would be inaccurate to state that the public sessions were void of substantive proposals to amend or enrich the White Paper. A few dozen Belizeans, some prominent, some not, made practical and well-argued suggestions directly to the JSC. Importantly, the JCS received letters or written input by mail or at the sessions from a least some 40 organisations or communities and from some 18 individuals. Again, there were some well-reasoned and substantive proposals among them.

UDP Political Confusion

In the last week of January 1981, the PUP had already begun to rev up its formidable party machinery to organise its people to show up at the public JSC sessions. The Opposition United Democratic Party (UDP) did not follow suit. While boycotting the JSC and attacking the process publicly and opposing the timing of independence, the UDP leadership exhibited national political confusion in that it also shared some party constitutional proposals. For example, in letters to or meetings with Governor Hennessy, UDP leaders rubbished the process and timing, but then still advocated for amendments to the White Paper.

Most likely confusing some of its own supporters, a handful of well-known UDP personalities made the public effort to appear before the the JSC consultations. The most noteworthy of these was Representative for Albert and UDP Deputy Leader, Philip Goldson, who personally addressed the JSC in Belize City on 25 February 1981.  Goldson informed that the proposals were being made on behalf of the Executive Committee of the UDP as party positions. Like the PUP, the UDP also signalled that it embraced the monarchial parliamentary model with the British monarch as Head of State.

Among the specific UDP proposals to the White Paper were substantive amendments arguing for freedom of the press, for “no more than half less two” of the members of the House of Representatives going to cabinet, for the Opposition to chair and have the majority on the Public Accounts Committee of the House, and for all constitution amendments to require a two-thirds majority in the House. They also included a proposal for the national flag to be “half blue, half red with the coat of arms in a white circle in the center,” and for an all-of-society process to select the other national symbols.

Apart from the fact that it was going through internal party strife over the leadership of party, the UDP was likely also hedging its political bets on what was still then an unpredictable 1981. Any number could still play.

More consultations, por favor!

It is deeply delusional to seriously argue that two weeks for public consultations and three weeks for written inputs were adequate for the deadly serious business of creating a new independence constitution. A significant number of individuals and organizations, beyond the UDP, protested the short timetable and advocated extensions of the public consultation phase.

Among those persons proposing more time were Lois M. Young, Alexandra Coye and Nuri Muhammad.  The organizations included the Bar Association, the Chamber of Commerce (which had commissioned Professor E. Laing to do a comprehensive review of the White Paper), the Public Service Union, the National Teachers Union, the National Trade Union Congress, the Belize Library Association, the Belize Christian Council, the Islamic Mission, the Taxi Drivers Association, the Anti-Communist Society and the Guild of Graduates. Some of these groups were among those that formed a ‘consultative group’ which requested a six-month extension.

The JSC did not directly respond to these requests in writing. However, during the public sessions it informed that given the quickly approaching Constitutional Conference in London time extensions were not possible and only conceded that written input could be reviewed up to the time the Report of the JSC on the White Paper was being finalised. This Report was prepared in record time by the third week of March, just shortly after the last public JSC session on 2 March in the capital, Belmopan. It turned out to be the final Report and it was unclear, then, if there were going to be any further consultations with the people on the development of the independence Constitution.

 A Rather Skimpy Report

The JSC, which (apart from the nine public sessions) had four private meetings to plan its work and prepare its recommendations, tabled its Report on the White Paper to both the House of Representatives and the Senate on 27 March 1981. Although the UDP appointees were listed at the last page of the Report, they did not sign given the party’s boycott. The fact that it was approved, without amendments, in one day – by the House that morning, and then by the Senate at 7 pm on a Friday night – highlights the urgent time crunch the PUP government had set for itself. By that March Friday night not only were south-easterly winds blowing on the coast, but national tensions around the Heads of Agreement were near boiling point. Alas, the political spotlight, as well as partisan divisions, were quickly moving from constitutional matters to those related to the Guatemalan claim.

A review of the records of both legislative chambers for 27 March reveals that the constitutional debate in the Senate was quite substantive and Senator M. Esquivel (who was to become Belize’s second Prime Minister in 1984) made numerous contentions that the JSC’s Report had omitted or glossed over several recommendations from the consultations.  Apart from the fact that the UDP boycotted the JCS, was Esquivel right? How much did the JSC Report really reflect the people’s proposals offered in the limited time they had?  A full answer to that requires detailed comparative analysis of all the JSC proceeding and all the written input against the recommendations in the Report. Yet on the surface, the evidence suggests that the JSC disregarded more of the people’s proposals than it accepted.

While the JSC’s reports of the verbatim proceedings of all public nine sessions totalled 537 pages and the report with copies of written input totalled 96 pages, the final Report with the recommendations of the JSC was only four pages long. In addition to an introductory page on the JSC mandate and a final signature page, there were only two pages of 18 numbered amendments to the White Paper based on the public input. Because two of the recommendations had multiply amendments, the real total number of new proposals was 23. In its Report the JSC did not even enumerate or categorize all the proposals received during the consultations. Nor did the JSC provide any justifications for why these 23 recommendations were selected and why others were not.

In short, it was a skimpy and mostly shallow report that did injustice to the rushed efforts made by those organisations and citizens that reviewed the White Paper and offered proposals within the very tight deadlines. For sure, the PUP leadership must have been very distracted by the rapidly intensifying protests and strikes over the Heads of Agreement in the last half of March. A state of emergency was announced by Governor Hennessy on 2 April 1981 – just five days after the JCS presented its Report to the National Assembly. It was a classic case in politics of leaving for tomorrow what could have been done yesterday – things will happen!

What Made the Cut?

Of the 23 recommendations selected by the JSC, some were just word changes but not unimportant. Others were more substantive or totally new to the White Paper. For example, the JSC agreed that three clauses, including the protection of the environment was to be added to the draft Preamble (that story coming soon) and that four ‘new’ human rights, related to the protection of the law, were to be integrated in the part on rights and freedoms. Also making it were proposals to include consultations with the Leader of the Opposition for appointments of members of the Belize Advisory Council and the Chief Justice, and to limit the protection of existing laws only to five years. There was even a curious concession by the JSC to include a new clause that contemplated a future change from a monarchical to a republican form of government.

Examples of proposals from organizations and individuals that did not make the cut are many and, indeed, some, such as a suggestion to legalize prostitution, were more suited to ordinary law reform than a constitution. But among those that were constitution-grade material were proposals for a republican from of government, for social and economic rights, for more property rights, for children rights, for freedom of access to the press and radio, for cultural rights (there were calls for Spanish and Maya, Kriol as official or recognised languages in addition to English), and for more restrictions of declarations of states of emergency.

There also proposals for national symbols, anthem and prayer to be enshrined in the Constitution (a very popular one), for the Church-State education system to enshrined, for mandatory military service, for an elected Senate, for cabinet members never to be the majority in the House, for union rights to be constitutionally recognised, and for amendments to the Constitution to be given effect only by referenda that could be initiated by the people. That latter proposal to the JSC on referenda came, by letter dated 25 February 1981, from a young man named E.H. Courtenay.

While some of these proposals were suggested by only one or two persons, others were made numerous times. The fact that they were made at all in the restricted circumstances indicate that there was latent and growing public interest to participate in the consultations and that, if there had been more time and a better process with bi-partisan support, the proposals of the Government of Belize on the Independence Constitution would have been more ‘from and of the people’.

But that was not to be! The time had already come to take the proposals, just as they were, across the Atlantic to ‘negotiate’ a new constitution with the British on its turf.

Coming next is my Part III in this series of Real Story on how the Belize proposals fared in London at the Belize Constitutional Conference in April 1981.

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 is from The New Belize, February 1981, page 8.

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