Tension on the runway
The dramatic incident that unfolded on the runway on Wednesday afternoon should not have been allowed to happen.
At the heart of it was a row over who had jurisdiction in an investigation into serious offences allegedly involving a serving member of the military posted here.
The Ministry of Defence insisted it was a military investigation under UK jurisdiction. The Royal Gibraltar Police, keen to establish whether any offence had been committed here, insisted it had primacy.
The row escalated to unprecedented levels as the MoD sought to prevent the RGP from executing a warrant signed by the Chief Justice of Gibraltar authorising police officers to seize computer equipment.
It ended with the surreal sight of an RGP vehicle parked in the middle of the runway to prevent a military plane from taking off.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands of people were left stranded at the runway barriers for the best part of two hours, unable to cross. The tailback of vehicles stretched deep into town, causing gridlock and requiring the RGP to implement special traffic measures.
As tension rose, everyone from the Chief Minister to the Governor was dragged into what should have been a routine law enforcement issue.
It was that top-level intervention that finally forced the MoD to cede in this ugly stand-off. It handed over the computer equipment and kept the suspect in Gibraltar while the RGP conducted preliminary inquiries.
The RGP has primacy in any criminal investigation in Gibraltar – anywhere in Gibraltar – and the MoD is not above the law.
Even if the MoD wants to question that view, the correct approach is not to flex muscle and ignore local law enforcement. The correct approach is one of trust and cooperation, and full compliance with Gibraltar’s Constitution and laws.
This situation should have been resolved through dialogue at senior level and by ensuring judicial process was followed. It should not have been resolved by bravado on the runway, or by trying to bundle a man and an evidence bag into the back of a military plane.
The immediate losers of this sorry situation were those caught at the runway, most of them heading home after a day’s work. It was not just the wait, but the lack of information and the uncertainty as to what was happening. Against the backdrop of the threat of terrorism, situations like the one on Wednesday rapidly generate unease and alarm.
But despite the inconvenience caused, the underlying issues about vital inter-agency relationships and the rule of law in Gibraltar are far more serious.
Since his arrival last year, the Governor, Lieutenant General Edward Davis, has worked closely with the Gibraltar Government to strengthen cooperation between local law enforcement agencies, emergency services and the MoD.
The aim is to ensure that Gibraltar is kept safe and is well prepared to tackle any major contingency. On Wednesday evening, however, that close cooperation fell apart.
Questions must now be asked as to how and why events unfolded the way they did. Lessons must be learned and, if necessary, individuals must be held accountable for their decisions and actions.
The public will rightly expect an explanation, but the RGP and the MoD must be given the time and space to properly clarify what happened. Crucially, they must also be allowed to continue their respective investigations into the alleged serious offence.
Above all, Wednesday’s incident must not be allowed to undermine the good work that has been carried out over the past year, or the relationships that have been fostered and strengthened.
Against the backdrop of Brexit, the Gibraltar Government, the British Government and the Ministry of Defence must continue to work in partnership as they have always done.