Saturday, 7th December 2013
Keys in hand, Sir James reaffirms British sovereignty and urges Spain to talks
by Dominique Searle
FIRM GRIP ON THE KEYS Governor Lt Gen Sir James Dutton of the Royal Marines inspecting a parade of soldiers of the Royal Gibraltar Regiment after his swearing in at Parliament yesterday. Pic: Johnny Bugeja
In previous years the arrival of a new Governor by sea was part of the pageantry and tradition the Rock had come to expect - but sailing in on flagship HMS Bulwark after a sovereignty patrol of our British waters, Lieutenant General Sir James Dutton yesterday captured Gibraltar, again.
A distinguished Royal Marine, who have a tradition of wearing the single battle honour ‘Gibraltar’ for its original capture in 1704, Sir James brought with him the message Gibraltarians want to hear amidst the oppressive campaigning from Spain’s right wing Government.
“Her Majesty the Queen expressed Her support for the people of Gibraltar and Her continuing best wishes.”
And the message in Parliament from the Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, Opposition leader Daniel Feetham and the new Governor, who was being sworn in, was clear. Gibraltar stands firmly British and supported by UK, but there is a great willingness to move to dialogue and urge Spain away from confrontation.
“Talking is crucial, and I hope that the ad hoc talks can start soon, not least as a demonstration of goodwill and a shared desire to progress. We remain absolutely ready to talk – but there has to be somebody to talk to!” said Sir James referring to Spain’s failure so far to come back to UK on the proposals for ad hoc talks that seemed imminent to all sides in September.
Mr Picardo declared that the Gibraltar Government “is ready for dialogue to deliver understanding in place of confrontation, whether that is under the Tripartite Forum or even under the ‘ad hoc’ formula.”
“But Spain has not yet responded to the UK and Gibraltar’s most recent communications on the proposal,” he said noting that “even the US and other powers are talking to the Islamic Republic of Iran after almost 35 years of diplomatic estrangement. Yet the Partido Popular’s Spain will not talk to Gibraltar.”
And for Mr Feetham for the specific purpose of trying to resolve the current situation and no other, he supports dialogue outside the Tripartite process “as long as the essential architecture of that process was maintained, namely: an open agenda, and a separate voice, vote and veto for Gibraltar.”
“That would ensure that Gibraltar was fully protected and that any talks were safe for this community. The importance of trying to resolve the current situation, overrides the importance of what additional parties attended the talks on the Spanish side, provided the essential architecture of the tripartite talks that I have described was maintained,” he said adding that only the tiralteral forum can work in the longer term.
Ahead of his arrival Sir James had conversed at length with six former Governors – Sir John Chapple, Sir Richard Luce, Sir David Durie, Sir Francis Richards and Sir John Fulton, and Sir Adrian Johns.
“All different characters, from different backgrounds, but with one thing at least in common: they all fell in love with Gibraltar and its people and all still have many local connections. I just know that it is going to be the same for Liz (his wife Lady Dutton) and I – and we are both hugely looking forward to it.”
But Sir James noted that he arrives here at a difficult time when “the number, scale and character of incursions into British Gibraltar Territorial Waters is significantly up, and when the delays to cross the border are unacceptably long.”
“Indeed, amounting to harassment: a situation made worse by the illogicality and random nature of their imposition – situations that simply should not exist between two friendly nations that belong to the same political and economic organisation, the EU, and to the same military organisation, NATO.”
Sir James noted Gibraltar’s survival through 15 historic sieges and of having the distinction of being the only remaining territory on the continent of Europe that remained in Allied hands in World War II.
“I do not think that there has ever been a period when the support of the British Government has been stronger, or so openly expressed. It is now repeated so often that at first I did wonder if it was really necessary for me to again repeat the assurances on sovereignty.” But as the new Governor he did.
Britain, he declared, will never enter into arrangements under which the people of Gibraltar would pass under the sovereignty of another State against their freely, and democratically expressed, wishes.
“Britain has also declared, publicly and repeatedly, that ‘it would never even enter a process of negotiation with Spain about the sovereignty of the Rock without Gibraltar’s permission.”
And shooting down joint-sovereignty he added “whatever may have happened in the past, even in the relatively recent past, there can be no doubt or fear by any of us that that commitment would, or could, be breached. The sovereignty case is rock solid – indisputable – non-negotiable, and applies just as strongly to the territorial waters.”
“We occupy the moral high ground on this issue and also on decolonisation,” he said adding that, whatever arguments may continue to occur over the fine detail of the decolonisation case within the context of the UN, “no reasonable person could claim that Gibraltar is a colony of the UK.”
Nobody applying common sense test could say that the UK has not taken full account of the wishes of the people of Gibraltar – “self-determination certainly rules here.”
“Despite all the irritations and inconveniences, we are 100% sure of the rightness of our position and Britain and Gibraltar are in lock-step on this,” said Sir James also welcoming the strength of the economic situation in Gibraltar.
The new Governor brought with him the message that good neighbourly relations between Gibraltar, UK and Spain are
truly a ‘win-win-win’ situation.
“Against the background that I have described, of the rock solid relationship with Britain, and our shared belief in the certainty of our case, we can, indeed we must, talk to Spain about the many local issues that are reducing the quality of life, not only here in Gibraltar, but even more so for the Spaniards living just across the border.”
In the better tradition of Parliament the two local politicians gave robust, well-delivered addresses despite the clear political antagonism. Whilst the event is one that almost uniquely gives the Opposition Leader the opportunity to speak without the Chief Minister having the final say in a reply.
Mr Picardo sketched a stark parallel between events in the late 90s and early noughties and the similar baptism of fire he has had to endure, again with a PP government in Spain.
He warmly welcomed the Governor telling him that since the election the GSLP/Liberal Government had made “huge changes to the way that Gibraltar is governed in order to deliver modern good-governance and setting a standard in good government.”
But he focused on the challenges beyond delivering electoral commitments.
Apart from Spain, the Rock, said the Chief Minister, is facing the challenge from the UK Exchequer on a point of consumption tax.
Mr Picardo said that he has been in direct correspondence with the Chancellor himself in the past weeks on the subject.
“We are addressing potential solutions to the concerns of the online gaming industry here which now employs as many people as the Ministry of Defence used to as recently as some twenty years ago.”
Mr Picardo, said that he had come across press reports of September 1999 of a threat of “direct rule” from London over betting on the Rock, following the widespread publicity arising from the relocation to Gibraltar of a prominent UK gaming entity.
“How apposite given the situation now,” he said noting that was the first term Government of Sir Peter Caruana as Chief Minister.
“History sometimes repeats itself in some ways; although happily now without the “tax haven” epitaph or the threats in the British press of direct rule, something now reserved for the colonial history books for good,” he said.
Mr Picardo described the Government’s completion of the programme to bring Gibraltar up to speed on EU legislation but made clear on finance centre issues generally that “whilst there is not a worldwide level playing field, the challenge of considering action plans for registers of beneficial ownership, whether central or not and whether public or not, is one that we have to address very carefully indeed.”
Then he touched on “what we all thought was a European frontier and the country we all want to believe is our modern European neighbour.
Undoubtedly, he said, the current attitude of the Spanish Partido Popular government is highly challenging for both Gibraltar and the United Kingdom.
“The PP have repeatedly made their positioning on Gibraltar crystal clear,” said Mr Picardo tracing the PP action from 1996 to 2000 when Abel Matutes was Spanish Foreign Minister and Mr Caruana was Chief Minister.
“Lengthy queues were then the order of the day, as they are now – although the particularly cruel “pedestrian queue” to exit Gibraltar is a new phenomenon. We were referred to then as a tax haven by Spain. And all as a result of a fishing dispute that had rumbled on for three years and had led to the arrest of a vessel and even to the closure of the frontier by a picket of fishermen.”
Having to deal with Spanish fishermen is a “rite of passage for a modern Chief Minister in his first term”, he declared, adding that the excuses Spain was using for the queues in Mr Caruana’s day were “Tobacco smuggling! Money laundering! The finance centre!” “Ground hog day, Your Excellency,” he said addressing the Governor.
Mr Picardo noted that at that time the EU Commission considered taking legal action against Spain but instead simply asked that checks at the frontier should be proportionate.
“At least today we know from yesterday’s Gibraltar Chronicle that Spain has been told by the EU Commission that some of her checks are entirely unjustified – something that curiously did not make it into their press release on the subject!”
He also recalled former Chief Minister Caruana making clear that the many accusations from Spain were “mendacious lies” and completely false.
In an apparent dig at Mr Feetham he added that “in those days, of course, no-one from here ever countenanced going to Spain to blame the Gibraltar Government for the problems created by the arrest of a fishing vessel in our waters; because the genesis of the problem was clearly the PP’s attitude to Gibraltar.”
2000 saw things worse with the Aznar government and the joint sovereignty episode, Mr Picardo told Parliament declaring that “there is today no question of a return to Joint-Sovereignty proposals. There is no question of a return to bi-lateral discussions between UK and Spain under the Brussels Process or otherwise in relation to Gibraltar’s Sovereignty.”
“We in Gibraltar must be vigilant not allow the PP to divide us on these issues; or persuade us to consider a staunch defence of our nation as somehow ‘provocative’ or ‘incendiary’ as some PP politicians have described our actions to some astonishing but minor local echo,” he said.
Mr Picardo recalled that Foreign Secretary William Hague proposed the more flexible but entirely safe “ad hoc” talks in April 2012 – last year – with our full support.
“Because we believe that dialogue is possible - and with imagination and goodwill on all sides even the boldest red lines on all sides can be maintained and dialogue produce fruitful results. And that is what Gibraltar wants to try to achieve.”
NADIR WITH SPAIN
Mr Feetham observed that not since the closure of the border in 1969 “have relations between this community and Spain been at a lower point than they are today; never have Spanish measures against Gibraltar been as severe as they are today.”
“It is completely wrong and immoral for the Spanish Government to have targeted an entire community as it has done with Gibraltar – whatever sleight it perceives to have received,” he said adding that Spain’s reaction, particularly since the blocks were laid in BGTW, has been “disproportionate, immoral and in relation to the border queues, illegal too.”
But whilst he condemned these he declared that in a democracy not everyone will agree with the approach of the Government of the day or indeed, of the Opposition.
He said that Joe Bossano, when Leader of the Opposition Mr Bossano, criticised the Cordoba Agreement when Parliament was welcoming Sir Adrian and Lady Johns.
“No one sought to equate his criticism of Government policy with criticisms of or disloyalty to Gibraltar,” he said.
“Whilst everyone desires to protect fundamental red lines on sovereignty, jurisdiction and control of our land, waters and airspace, there is a GSD way of doing things that can be traced back to the early 1990s and which we continue to uphold,” said the Opposition Leader.
“Of course we have the legal right to do what we want in BGTW, but for every action there might be a reaction, however unjustified. And the consequences have to be factored into those decisions in a calm, measured and intelligent way. In a democratic Europe everyone has the right to compare any nation, let alone Spain, to North Korea or to go to the UN and accuse Spain of state-sponsored vandalism or, I suppose have someone as part of your delegation that compares Spain’s actions towards Gibraltar of terrorism. I suppose everyone has the right to say that and much more, but is it advisable?”
The Opposition welcomed the plan to introduce fishing legislation even though it still does not know whether Spanish fishermen will have to apply for a licence in Gibraltar.
“Either way, save for asking what had it all been for or what have we achieved in those 18 months, we will be supportive of any measures introduced by the Government, with or without Spanish fishermen having to apply for a licence in Gibraltar, because we need to be putting all this behind us,” he said.
“Gibraltar is strong when we pick and choose our battles carefully by reference to the obvious red lines we are all - the Chief Minister and myself included - determined to maintain.”
Mr Feetham welcomed the support from Prime Minister David Cameron saying it proves “beyond doubt, if proof were necessary, that it is in our interest to maintain our close Constitutional links with the UK, which our current Constitution guarantees, a maximum level of self-government short of independence and compatible with continued British sovereignty over this community.”
The Royal Marine roots
Next year is the 350th anniversary of the formation in 1664 of the Admiral’s Regiment, that later became the Royal Marines, and the 310th anniversary of the capture of Gibraltar by British and Dutch marines in 1704.
Gibraltar is the only battle honour that Royal Marines wear on their Colours and crest – it is on the cap badge of every marine.
It was one of Sir James Dutton’s Companies when “I was commanding 40 Commando in 1996 that represented the Corps when Gibraltar granted them the Freedom of the City.
“Eight years before you granted it to the Royal Navy; I always enjoy reminding my naval colleagues of that! That very special and enduring relationship is hugely important to the Royal Marines and, I think, to Gibraltar and its people,” Sir James told Parliament yesterday.