No decision yet on British Virgin Islands direct rule, says UK minister after visit

The Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling has said a decision on whether to impose direct rule on the British Virgin Islands (BVI) has still be to be made following her return from a three-day visit to the overseas territory, but said its government must address endemic corruption.

Her emergency trip, during which she met a variety of business, community and political leaders, came after the territory’s premier, Andrew Fahie, appeared in a US federal court in Miami last week on charges of money-laundering and conspiring to import cocaine following his arrest in a sting operation by agents posing as Mexican drug traffickers.

The BVI government has rejected direct rule, proposed an alternative of an interim national unity government including members from all parties, and committed to addressing the systematic maladministration revealed in a commission of inquiry report ordered by the territory’s governor, the publication of which coincided with Fahie’s arrest by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

Milling will have to decide whether the imposition of direct rule, which is also opposed by leaders of other Caribbean islands, will hinder the process of reforming government, or whether the problems are so deep-seated that it requires the BVI governor, John Rankin, to take sole charge, aided by an advisory council.

At present, the governor is in charge of foreign, defence and security policies, while elected politicians working in the national assembly are accountable for budgets and domestic policy.

The retired judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom, who conducted the lengthy inquiry, had concluded “with a heavy heart” in his chief recommendation that direct rule was required because the misgovernment was deliberate and stretched back over more than one political administration.

In a statement as she left the territory, Milling said: “Let’s be clear – the report highlighted significant concerns around corruption, transparency and accountability. There is no getting away from this. Like many people have told me, this isn’t a question of whether something should be done. It is a question of what is done. Action is needed now to strengthen the foundations of the territory; deliver a better public service; maintain a strong and resilient economy; and create better opportunities for the people of the BVI.”

Milling said she had heard from community and religious leaders of the impact of corruption on daily lives, adding that “significant changes” were required.

“There is an urgent need to fix the systems, processes, laws and norms to ensure that money spent by the government … is better spent on roads, education, hospitals and better public services and not misused as the COI has found,” she said.

The acting premier, Natalio Wheatley, has proposed a national unity government consisting of members of the National Democratic party as well as the Progressive Virgin Islands Movement. Two members of the existing government would not be offered ministerial posts, and the new government would remain in place for 10 to 12 months. Fresh elections are due to take place in February 2023.

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