Obituary: Vere Bird

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The Independent Culture
VERE BIRD is revered by his compatriots as the father of Antiguan independence and admired in the rest of the Caribbean as a tireless advocate of regional economic integration. He founded a political dynasty that, sometimes controversially, still runs the twin-island state of Antigua and Barbuda to this day.

Bird first made his name in the early 1950s as a union leader who defied the all-powerful sugar planters and British colonial administration of the time. He went on to found the Antigua Labour Party and become chief minister, before leading the island to independence in 1981. As prime minister he remained the dominant figure in Antiguan politics up to his retirement in 1994, when he handed over the job to his son, Lester.

The family are no strangers to scandal. But Antiguans have tended to turn a blind eye to allegations of corruption and profiteering, in view of the Birds' historic role. Vere Bird senior was sometimes accused of running Antigua as a private business, accumulating interests in some of its most profitable activities. He was also inclined to appoint his children to high office and then not supervise their activities very closely.

Lester's elder brother, Vere junior, was serving as minister of public works and communications in the late 1980s when a plot was uncovered to ship Israeli arms to Colombian drug-traffickers via Antigua, and set up a training school for mercenaries on the island. A subsequent independent commission of inquiry, chaired by a British QC, found Vere Bird Jnr unfit to hold public office. But that did not stop him becoming an MP and minister of agriculture in Lester Bird's second administration, after the latter was re-elected with an increased majority in March this year. The youngest son, Ivor, a powerful media owner in Antigua, was convicted of trying to smuggle cocaine into the country in 1996; his $37,000 fine was paid by his father.

In recent years, Antigua has come under suspicion as a trans-shipment point for cocaine from South America, and as a centre for laundering drug profits, through the loosely regulated offshore banks that have sprung up there, as in many other small Caribbean islands. The government has taken steps to tighten controls on the offshore financial sector, under heavy pressure from Britain and the United States, but both countries feel that much more could still be done.

On the plus side, Antiguans point to a record of rapid economic growth that has helped to give one of the highest standards of living in the region, and a per capita income for its 67,000 people second only to Barbados. Life expectancy is on a par with the US and Western Europe.

Vere Bird senior worked hard to diversify the economy away from reliance on the sugar industry, which gave him his initial power base but had gone into terminal decline by the early 1970s. He was quick to realise the potential of the islands' palm-fringed beaches, and built a deep-water port and international airport to attract the growing Caribbean tourist trade. Thanks to an energetic publicity campaign, he succeeded in making Antigua a favourite holiday destination for visitors from Europe.

At the same time, the paternalistic Bird made sure that enough of the benefits of growth percolated down to the islanders to earn their gratitude and ensure his regular re-election as prime minister. He introduced free secondary education, electrified the whole island and linked up the sleepy communities of the interior with a network of roads. A construction boom fuelled by hotel and resort developments created thousands of jobs in a region of traditionally high unemployment.

Vere Cornwall Bird was born in 1910, the fourth of five children of a poor family in what was then a British colony dependent on the sugar-cane plantations. He had little formal education, but showed a precocious gift for leadership as a Salvation Army officer, reaching the rank of captain by the age of 21. He first came to public notice as one of the founders of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (AT&LU) in 1939, and became its president four years later - a position he held for 21 years.

As leader of the cane-cutters, Bird came into conflict with the island's main employer, Antigua Sugar Estates, and by 1951 had forced a reluctant management to recognise the union's right to negotiate collective agreements for its workers.

A carefully cultivated legend about those times recounts a confrontation between Bird and the ASE boss, Alexander Moody-Stuart, in January 1951. When Bird threatened to take the cane-cutters out on strike if their wages were not raised, Moody-Stuart was sceptical, suggesting that they would starve. To which Bird replied: "We will eat cockles and the widdy widdy bush. We will drink pond water." He was as good as his word: the cutters went on strike and there was no sugar harvest that year. Perhaps the cutters did collect cockles from the beaches and eat the widdy widdy bush, a common weed that had been part of the plantation slaves' diet.

Bird, like other Caribbean leaders of his generation, used union activism as a springboard to political office, forming the Antigua Labour Party as an adjunct to the AT&LU. In 1945 he was elected a member of the colonial legislature, and later rubbed shoulders with unelected members of the local "plantocracy" on the executive council. In 1960 he was appointed the first Chief Minister of Antigua, and in 1967 he became the country's first premier, under a system of full internal self-government. Apart from one period in opposition, between 1971 and 1976, he remained premier, and later prime minister of the independent state of Antigua and Barbuda, until his retirement in 1994.

He was awarded the Order of the Caribbean Community by his fellow regional heads of government in 1998, in recognition of his work for regional integration, declared a national hero and knighted. He was described yesterday by the High Commissioner in London, Ronald Sanders, as "the greatest national of Antigua and Barbuda who ever lived".

Vere Cornwall Bird, politician: born St John's, Antigua 7 December 1910; President, Antigua Trades and Labour Union 1943-67; Minister of Trade and Production, Antigua 1956-60, Chief Minister 1960-67, Premier 1967- 71, 1976-81; Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda 1981-94; PC 1982; married (three sons, two daughters); died St John's 28 June 1999.