Our man in hot water

When the British governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands claimed drug trafficking was rife it was the last straw for locals.
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On ceremonial occasions, the British governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands has to do a kind of limbo dance to get in and out of his official "limousine". Fracturing the magnificent swan feathers on his African-style colonial sun helmet would not look good. The natives might take it as a sign of the final decline of the Empire.

Fortunately, the governor, a plain-talking 49-year-old career diplomat from Stockport called Martin Bourke, has to perform only three ceremonial duties a year. His "limo" is, in fact, a traditional London taxi cab; his chauffeur, a policeman called Daniel, helps him tuck his feathers safely through the door.

Presumably, selecting a London cab instead of a Rolls-Royce was done with care. These eight inhabited Caribbean islands are not wealthy and are populated mainly by educated and articulate descendants of Bermudian salt-rakers and the slaves of exiled American War of Independence loyalists. Letting the governor "drive a cab" may have been aimed at making him appear more the people's servant than colonial overlord.

If that was the intention, the message is not getting through. Mr Bourke is under fire from most of the population of 15,000 British subjects after giving an interview in which he said the islands were at a "peak" of drug trafficking, that its tiny police force (for which he, incidentally, has direct constitutional responsibility) was corrupt and that crime was spiralling.

His comments outraged locals, who have had their own government for two decades - albeit with the governor as what they consider a "Big Brother" figure with the power of veto - and led to a "Bourke must go" campaign using the Bob Marley battle cry: "Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights."

"When you had 10 burglaries last year and 14 this year, that's a 40 per cent increase. But we still have the lowest crime rate in the world," says estate agent Phillip Misick. "The governor is an arrogant man. He just wants to be the head honcho."

So, according to most locals, do most governors and governors-general of Britain's current or former West Indian colonies. On the other hand, defiance of the colonial envoy is often a vote-winning platform for local politicians.

"There has always been friction in most countries out here between the governor and the locally elected government," says Trevor Yearwood, a Barbadian and chief editor of the Barbados-based Caribbean News Agency. "The main problem is the amount of power the governor has. People tend to feel their governors are bent on riding roughshod over them and controlling everything. But it's limited to verbal attack. People here are peaceful."

When Alan Shave, the outgoing governor of the dependent territory of Anguilla left last October, he spoke in a farewell radio broadcast of his "often thankless and confrontational task". His term had been marked by friction with the local government, latterly over what they considered inadequate British aid following a devastating hurricane.

Describing it as "the hardest assignment of my 34-year diplomatic service career", Mr Shave said his term had been "sadly peppered with arguments and feuds". The locals called him a spoilt whiner.

One thing almost tailor-made to cause friction is the fact that the British diplomats sent out to the Caribbean are often far from Whitehall high- flyers. In the Foreign Office league, the "dependent territories" are distinctly Vauxhall Conference. Even the most prominent posting out here, governor-general of Jamaica, is considered small beer on the global diplomatic circuit. Except for Cuba, it is rare to see a British diplomat go from the Caribbean to an ambassadorial post.

In the Turks and Caicos, unrest is essentially aimed at having Mr Bourke replaced, but there have also been renewed calls for independence. The protests have led Mr Bourke to employ British bodyguards and to ready a contingency force of 100 policemen from Manchester in case the campaign turns violent.

So far, there is no sign of that, but growing vocal opposition makes it almost certain that Mr Bourke, governor since 1993, will pass on the swan-feathered hat in September when he has completed the traditional minimum three-year term. His successor could be in for a rough ride.

The governor's emphasis on developing the island of Providenciales, the burgeoning tourism and business centre that locals call "Provo", has caused some resentment among residents of the principal island, Grand Turk - half an hour away in a light aircraftMany of them are moving to Providenciales in search of work in the tourism sector.

But it is Mr Bourke's claim that drug trafficking is at a peak and his hints that politicians and businessmen are involved that have caused the most trouble. To understand the background, you have to go back to 1985, when the then chief minister, the popular Norman Saunders of the Progressive National Party (PNP), was arrested and jailed in Miami for conspiracy to smuggle narcotics to the US, sparking a constitutional crisis and new elections.

"The Honourable Mr Saunders" is now back in politics, as popular as ever, serving in the Legislative Council and slamming the governor - "a moron", he said recently - with relish. "We cannot have a loose gun or mad dog running around in our country," Mr Saunders told a council session last month.

In a more recent drugs case, a former aide to Mr Saunders, a businessman called Alden "Smokey" Smith (almost everyone in the islands has a nickname), was arrested last year along with two pilots - "Porky" and "Red Boy" - and a fourth man known as "Duck". Prosecutors, backed by Scotland Yard Detective Superintendent Derek Haynes, said the pilots were caught in possession of 12 kilos of cocaine and ready to fly to Miami.

It emerged in court that Supt Haynes, with the approval of the governor but without consulting police, had "tapped" several phones, notably number 13466, the telephone in Mr Smith's popular reggae bar on the island of Providenciales, known as Smokey's On Da Beach. According to the tapes cited by the prosecutors, Mr Smith had helped organise the cocaine shipment.

On 2 February this year, more than a year after they were arrested, all four men were acquitted by a jury to cheers in the streets from blacks and disbelief from the governor and the island's few thousand "belongers" (the name given to foreigners granted citizenship) and resident expatriates. Blacks had billed it as their equivalent of the OJ Simpson trial - black versus white, locals versus the colonial system. "How dare they tap my private conversations?" was the gist of Mr Smith's defence.

"Is there dope money involved in the TCI government? Sure," said one American observer, who preferred not to be named. "But it's not at a peak. The politicians have a tendency to turn a blind eye. It's ingrained in the cultural system."

Anti-narcotics agents from the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) fly over the islands on orange-and-white US coastguard helicopters as part of a force known as Op-Bat, which includes police officers from the Bahamas and the TCI. The US agents claim they do not operate on the ground here. They used to in the Eighties when, heavily armed, they would crouch in the darkness of airstrips to arrest courier pilots from Colombia's Medellin drug cartel who landed to refuel.

Whatever the justification for Mr Bourke's comments, it is clear that resentment of his role runs deep. "This is like South Africa, but worse," said Bill Jones, a 53-year-old retired local government employee on the island of Grand Turk, seat of government and of the governor. "We're not supposed to be a dictatorship but all the power is in the hands of one man. Our tendency is not to be violent but they're making us violent now."

Mr Jones showed me around the outside of the governor's Grand Turk mansion, known as Waterloo because it was built in 1815. Mr Bourke first upset locals two years ago when he had the mansion renovated, at a cost of $900,000, but insisted the work was necessary after a startled Foreign Office visitor's foot went through a bathroom floorboard. "He sits in there living like a lord, better than the Queen of England," Mr Jones said. "This system is no better than slavery."

Mr Bourke, educated at Stockport Grammar School and London University and formerly based in Brussels, Singapore, Lagos and Johannesburg, remains adamant that he is only doing his job. Speaking before Whitehall ordered him to shut up, he told me "the Prime Minister is taking a personal interest in the war on drugs.

"I actually have to wear two hats here. As the governor of the TCI, I have to represent the TCI in London. But I'm also the Queen's representative here so I also have to represent Britain's views to these islands.

"I wish no ill will to anyone. I realise this is not Britain. But I'm expected to uphold the rule of law. If not, it would quickly become a dereliction of my duty."

The next time Mr Bourke dons the swan-feathered helmet is likely to be for the Queen's birthday parade in June. The last time may be in July when he reads the annual "Throne Speech", written by the chief minister. Traditionally, the governor reads the speech and leaves the locals to debate among themselves. As the politicians speak, Mr Bourke's ears may well be burning beneath his solar helmet.