Call for direct UK rule of British Virgin Islands resisted by acting premier

The acting premier of the British Virgin Islands has said he opposes a recommendation that the UK take direct control of the territory after his predecessor appeared in a US court on charges linked to drugs trafficking.

Andrew Fahie, 51, was detained in Miami on Thursday for allegedly conspiring to import a controlled substance and laundering money, in an operation led by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The territory’s director of ports, Oleanvine Maynard, was also arrested.

The string of islands inhabited by 35,000 people, east of Puerto Rico, operates under a 2007 constitution that gives them limited self-governance under a governor who is the ultimate executive authority as the representative of the Queen.

An inquiry into corruption in the territory, led by the retired judge Sir Gary Hickinbottom, found that the people of the British Virgin Islands had been “badly served” by its government.

In the report, published on 4 April, Hickinbottom recommended the governor take direct rule of the territory for two years, stating: “Almost everywhere, the principles of good governance, such as openness, transparency and even the rule of law, are ignored.”

In a statement, the acting premier, Natalio Wheatley, said he was “very concerned” about the recommendation.

Wheatley said: “What this would mean in real terms is that there would be no more elected representatives who represent the people of the districts and the territory in the House of Assembly where laws are made for our society.

“There also would be no government ministers to advance the public’s priorities or a cabinet to approve policy. All of this authority would be vested in the governor.

“The benefit of representative democracy to the public is the understanding and responsiveness of their elected representatives to their challenges, who also serve as conduits of their views, especially on reforms.”

The inquiry found that elected officials “can and do make decisions – which expend huge sums of public money and affect the lives of all those who live in the [British Virgin Islands] – as they wish, without applying any objective criteria, without giving any reasons and without fearing any comeback”.

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The report says these decisions include matters such as procurement of contracts, selling crown land and grants of residence.

Wheatley added that he believed the issues raised in the report could be addressed without implementing direct rule.

He said: “The report makes a number of recommendations aimed at reforming and strengthening the systems of government in the Virgin Islands. In my view, these can be achieved without the partial or full suspension of the constitution in which direct rule would apply.

“The report’s recommended reforms, and also actions for the governor to take up, are not mutually exclusive or contradictory to maintaining democratic governance in the territory. Constitutional powers already exist under the constitution that can be exercised if necessary.”

At a heaing on Friday, conducted via Zoom, assistant US attorney Frederic Shadley asked magistrate judge Jonathan Goodman to keep Fahie and Maynard in custody before their trial.

A bond hearing was set for Wednesday.

After Fahie’s arrest, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said the minister for overseas territories, Amanda Milling, would travel to the territory to speak to the governor, John Rankin, and key stakeholders.

She said: “The arrest yesterday of the premier of the British Virgin Islands on charges related to drugs trafficking and money laundering is extremely concerning and underlines the need for urgent action.

“The [independent inquiry into the island’s governance] report published today by the governor shows clearly that substantial legislative and constitutional change is required to restore the standards of governance that the people of the British Virgin Islands are entitled to.

“I have instructed the minister for overseas territories to travel to the territory immediately to speak to the governor and key stakeholders. We will then announce a clear path forward.

“The overseas territories are a core part of the UK family.

“The UK government is committed to the security and wellbeing of the people of the British Virgin Islands.”