By Staff Writer
Debate swirling in the community about the role of Cayman Islands Regiment hit the floor of the Legislative Assembly’s new session with the government and opposition trading salvos on the addition to the jurisdiction’s uniformed services.
While there is acceptance of the unit in its disaster response and humanitarian form, government and opposition are at odds over its defence mandate.
Hon. Premier Alden McLaughlin tabled the bill seeking to give legislative authority to the regiment.
“The Bill provides for the governance and management of the newly established Regiment, which is a reserve force whose duties include the defence of these Islands, providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, assisting the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service and the Cayman Islands Coast Guard when called upon, as well as participating during ceremonial occasions," he stated.
The controversy over certain aspects of the role of the regiment comes as other Overseas Territories are rolling out their own units with a broadly similar remit.
Some like Bermuda, a reference point for Cayman, have a long history, while others are more recent, such as the Turks and Caicos Islands. Montserrat has also had a long-standing defence force.
Much of the debate has revolved around whether the regiment should have more of a humanitarian remit or a military defence capability.
Its involvement in defence and security missions outside Cayman, the role of the Governor - who is ultimately responsible for defence under the constitution, and recruitment eligibility have been points of concern.
Premier McLaughlin has also had to push back against suggestions that the regiment was part of the British army, that it was being rushed and that the regiment already has recruits - 51 of them - while the law underpinning it is only now being tabled.
He also cited precedence in the case of the Coast Guard where the underpinning legislation is still outstanding.
The regiment is “one more important part of our national resiliency infrastructure”, said Premier McLaughlin who has been at the forefront of the push to have it established he said dating back to 2005, the year after the devastation caused by Hurricane Ivan when Cayman was assisted by the Bermuda regiment.
"When we won the Government for the first time in 2005, the Progressives; that was one of the things we pursued with the then-Governor but at that time the UK Government was not at all inclined to support the establishment of such a regiment and the idea died on the vine."
Mr McLaughlin said he was "delighted" when current the Governor HE Martyn Roper took up the mantle.
"It seems, the UK has come to understand the huge advantage of having an established service, established force in the various territories comprised of people who live there and who have intimate knowledge of the terrain and issues that affect the particular territory and they seized on the opportunity of doing so first in Cayman, he said."
“Members of the Regiment will receive or are receiving in some cases the necessary ongoing training so as to be ready to assist during any crisis; whether that crisis is a major fire, an earthquake, a hurricane, a pandemic, or perhaps assisting the RCIPS or the Coast Guard as necessary.”
But there are objections to the wider remit especially clauses relating to military service, although non-combatant, both in and outside the Cayman Islands, at the discretion of the Governor.
Hon. independent MLA for Northside Ezzard Miller said while he supports the establishment of the regiment as previously envisioned, what was presented to the LA deviated from the original outline and therefore he could not back the legislation.
“My concerns lie in the fact that much has been added to the role of the regiment that I could not support.
“What I do not support is the assignment of the role of defence of these islands…and such other duties as the Governor may determine.”
Assurances from the government that the regiment was not an army or a division of the UK military, were not satisfactory to the Northside MLA.
Mr Miller said there were a number of other misgivings he had with the Defence Bill formalising the Cayman Islands regiment and hoped that the relevant amendments would be made to earn his support.
That trend of concern was the pattern for other interventions by opposition and MLAs.
Hon. MLA for West Bay North, Bernie Bush also cited the authority of the Governor over the regiment, especially his discretionary scope.
Mr Bush also questioned the pace at which he felt the legislation was being rushed through compared to what he felt were other pressing issues.
Mr Bush said the bill as presented had a lot of mistakes and questioned the government’s priorities. “People are losing their homes, and we don’t rush to do anything to help him, but we are rushing with this.”
He also declined to support the bill in its present form.
Hon. Leader of the Official Opposition, Arden McLean, is keen on the original concept of the regiment but also voiced concerns with elements of the bill.
“I want to see these young people what I want to see them proudly doing the drills along the streets and proud to be in the Uniformed Services.”
“Watch my choice of words,” he pointed out, placing emphasis on “the Uniformed Services.”
“You go to America and every time you see somebody in a military uniform everybody gathers around them and say thank you for your service. I want to be able to do that here, too,” he said hoping that the unit expands its ranks to 150 from its present 51.
Another round of recruitment is underway.
Mr McLean also felt that instead of the Governor, the unit should be under “a minister with the delegated responsibility for Uniformed Services in this country.”
He also wondered why the Cadet Corps wasn’t prioritised over a new regiment.
As the debate progressed the Hon. Independent MLA for George Town Central, Kenneth Bryan, took exception to several aspects of the legislation and the functions of the regiment.
“Nobody’s disputing the positive things that the regiment can bring,” Mr Bryan said, but he had a number of reservations, including the role of the Governor in the oversight of the unit.
He also questioned the lack of public consultation.
Following a break in the debate during which MLAs were able to consult with the government on their concerns over the bill, Mr Bryan welcomed the clarifications and said that he would “definitely be supporting some of the amendments”.
But he maintained his concerns about the role of the Governor - who retains constitutional responsibility for defence.
“I think that majority of the concerns that we have in respect to this bill can be summed up in one word and that word is trust,” he said, “because I don't think anybody in this honourable house is disputing whether we want a regiment or not.”
“When we started to hear many people being concerned, it tells me that the majority of the people are not opposed to a regiment but none of us knew what the formulation of the regiment would look like,” the Geoirge Town Central MLA observed.
ON THE DEFENSIVE
Hon. MLA for Prospect, Austin Harris, Councillor in the Office of the Premier, challenged what he called misrepresentations of the Defence Bill and the role of the regiment.
He cast the unit in more of a non-combatant, peace-keeping role.
Citing sections of the Defence Bill which refer to performing military service including training and non-combatant services both outside and inside the islands, Mr Harris said in his view these are intended to “instill discipline as a primary objective not necessarily war-fighting ability as some would have us believe.”
“It may surprise you to know that there exists within the United Kingdom military complex 210 regiments cores and units,” he explained.
“However, not all are fighting or aggressor type forces although they carry the same name and similar training strategies.”
The Prospect MLA said these skills enabled them to play key roles in humanitarian services including disaster relief.
NO HIDDEN AGENDA
The Hon. Deputy Governor, Franz Manderson felt that a number of “very valid points” had been in reference to the Defence Bill formally setting up the regiment.
In a move to address the issues raised he offered an opportunity for consultation with MLAs to address their concerns.
Giving the background to the origins of the regiment, he assured that there was no hidden agenda.
“I've had numerous discussions with his Excellency about this regiment. He talked to me from day one when he said he was going to bring it up with the Premier and I told him then that I thought it was a great idea,” the Deputy Governor informed the LA meeting.
“But,” he insisted, “there is no hidden agenda here. The Governor wants a regiment for the Cayman Islands so that it will carry out the functions of keeping us safe. Helping us.”
“Mr Speaker. I'm not gonna be part of any conspiracy. The government is not going to be part of any conspiracy. We are here to serve the people of the Cayman Islands and that's exactly what we're doing. All of us has the Cayman Islands best interests at heart,” Mr Manderson stressed.
The Defence Bill was expected to be voted when the sitting of the Assembly resumed on Wednesday October 21st.