Make balanced judgements on deceased mps
It is coincidental that in the space of just over a month, practically to the day, two of our former Parliamentarians have passed away. Coincidence indeed, since both represented the same constituency, West St George. Two weeks after former Education, Health and Women’s Affairs Minister Yvonne Francis-Gibson was buried with honours, former Attorney-General and Works and Communication Minister Arthur Williams also departed from this life.
There is much more coincidence in these developments. Both of the late Parliamentarians were major protagonists in what is widely regarded as a watershed event in the political and social history of St Vincent and the Grenadines – the 1975 teachers strike. One, Arthur Williams, was then the rampaging Attorney General in what was a self-styled “strongest government in the world”. He made it his business to be one of the most strident opponents of the claims of the Teachers’ Union, of which Ms Francis-Gibson was then 1st Vice-President.
It went further with the brutal tear-gassing of a peaceful teachers’ march on November 14, and the arrest of several of the leaders, including Ms Francis-Gibson, who collapsed in a cold police cell at the Calliaqua station and had to be hospitalized.
Those incidents and the aftermath of the strike with teachers jailed, fired and hounded, shaped many political events and careers of the future. The political fortunes of both the deceased were among them. Mr Williams hung on for nine more years in office, earning himself a reputation as one of the “hard men” of the Labour government, leading up to its ignominious defeat in 1984.
On the other side, Ms Francis-Gibson’s incarceration and persecution led to her eventual gravitation to the political field, succeeding at the polls in 1989, ironically in what was previously Mr. Williams’ stronghold, and her occupation of ministerial portfolios until her retirement in 1998. They were not the only ones to benefit politically from the historic strike of 1975. Many of those who came to hold office a decade later, and afterwards, can trace their good fortunes to the teachers’ strike and the positions they took. Significantly, those whose political fortunes went into decline, just happened to be on the other side.
There has been now much water under that bridge. Whatever their shortcomings, both the deceased have made contributions to our shared political experience. As former Parliamentarians, we pay respect to them. Yet we must learn from the mistakes of the past and act appropriately and wisely.
We must be careful neither to over-laud their contributions, to apportion “hero” status to one or the other, as some have already done, and to try to make political capital out of the deceased, as was done on the backs of the teachers who suffered most in 1975 and afterwards. Let us be reverent, but balanced and give tributes without succumbing to political opportunism.