May 3, 2013

Bumps in the road towards selection of the next national heroes

Fri May 03, 2013

National Heroes Day may have come and gone, but debate on who else should join Paramount Chief Joseph Chatoyer on that exalted platform of National Hero, is still very much alive.

A spark was added to that discussion late last week with the resignation of one of the members of the National Heroes Committee, the body charged with the responsibility of making recommendations to Cabinet in regard to additional persons on whom such status should be conferred.{{more}}

Jomo Thomas, a prominent local barrister, human rights advocate and political activist of long standing, in his letter to the chairperson of the Committee Rene Baptiste, made it clear that his resignation “…was precipitated by the presentation of Prime Minister Hon. Ralph Gonsalves”, at the UWI School of Continuing Studies, relayed live via the electronic media on Thursday, April 18, 2013.

This, Thomas’ letter contends, made the work of the Committee “superfluous”, since it “has irreparably coloured and influenced the debate…”.

Whilst admitting that Dr Gonsalves’ presentation was “a good one”, Thomas nonetheless concluded that it was essentially “…a determined lobby for [the candidacy of the late] Robert Milton Cato”.

Gonsalves, in his presentation, made compelling cases for going beyond our sole National hero, Chatoyer, including references to multi-hero examples in other Caribbean islands. His presentation followed others in the UWI series supporting the specific claims of labour and political leaders — George McIntosh and Ebenezer Joshua. The Prime Minister’s exhortations also extended to another nominee, educator Dr J.P. Eustace.

Though Gonsalves has long been a champion of conferring National Hero status on the likes of McIntosh, Joshua and Cato, his entry into the debate at this stage, when a Committee has already been set up and is advanced in its work, justifiably provoked charges that he was advocating that Cato, the country’s first Premier and Prime Minister, be named as one of the country’s national heroes.

In his defence, the Prime Minister insisted on his “right” as a citizen to hold and express an opinion on the matter. He also made the points that he was not advancing any single claim and that he, as Head of Cabinet, the final arbiter in the process, was not seeking to interfere in the work of the committee, but only to strengthen the case why the persons mentioned, Cato among them, “should be seriously considered” as candidates for national Hero status.

The most contentious issue in this whole debate lies with the naming of Joshua and Cato, for both objective as well as political reasons. Each of these men, and their legacies, are attached to current-day political “tribes”, neither of which is too enthusiastic, to put it mildly, to have the legacy of the other recognized at the level of national hero.

Interestingly, in the midst of all this, neither of the two major political parties has come out in open support of any of the persons being considered. Joshua’s party, the PPP, is a relic of the past, though the present Opposition, the NDP, has profited by identification with its supporters, if not its policies. The party of Robert Milton Cato has been absorbed into today’s governing Unity Labour Party, yet no prominent survivor of the “old” party has publicly advanced any claims on his behalf.

The silence of the political parties is perhaps a good thing, as the challenge confronting both the Prime Minister and the population as a whole, is how to advance the national debate and selection process without appearing to be partisan.

The Prime Minister has made a call for a more dispassionate view, but this is difficult when among us, are those who have very strong feelings about some of the contenders from personal experiences.

Gonsalves himself should be guided by the absolute need to avoid controversy in the choice of our next national hero(es) and walk this road with caution.