After decades of silence, islanders of Jersey rise up in protest at their political masters
Saturday 08 March 2008
The Royal Square in Jersey's capital, St Helier, is one of the most visible signs of the island's proud history of self-rule. The cobbled, pigeon-filled square stands at the site of the Battle of Jersey – France's final, disastrous attempt in 1781 to recapture an island that had been a British possession since William the Conqueror arrived in 1066. On the north side of the square stands the States of Jersey, the island's parliament, where 12 senators, 12 constables and 29 deputies vote on all matters pertaining to the island other than defence and foreign policy, which is decided in Westminster.
The battle is re-enacted each January to celebrate Jersey's heritage and independence. But today Royal Square will host a very different crowd – protesters angry at the way politicians are running the island and dealing with the child abuse investigation that has shaken the community.
Ever since police found fragments of a child's skull at the former Haut de la Garenne children's home while investigating child abuse allegations stretching back four decades, Jersey's political elite has struggled to cope with the scrutiny of the world's media now encamped on the island.
Last night, the latest revelation to emerge was that specially trained dogs have found blood spots invisible to the naked eye on a bath inside an underground chamber at the former care home.
Last week, the chief minister, Frank Walker, accused his political rival Stuart Syvret of "trying to shaft Jersey internationally" for highlighting recent child abuse scandals in care homes and detention centres. The off-hand remark outraged some islanders, who felt their leader cared more about Jersey's international reputation than the victims.
This week, the Health minister, Ben Shenton, caused further embarrassment with a leaked email in which he mocked the officer in charge of the inquiry. Mr Shenton compared Lenny Harper, the island's deputy police chief, to the comic Lenny Henry, saying: "My wife keeps referring to Lenny Harper as Lenny Henry – I don't think she's far wrong."
Mr Harper described the email as "childish and bizarre", saying he could not understand why "the very man responsible for children's welfare on this island would wish to sabotage the investigation". Mr Shenton said his remarks were taken out of context and has since apologised.
But many of those behind today's protest say it is time to reform Jersey's political system and, in particular, the way the chief minister is chosen by his fellow senators in a secret ballot.
"The protest is going to be an opportunity for people to finally speak out at how our island is run," said Montford Tadier, one of the organisers. "Your average person in Jersey looks upon the island's political system, particularly over the past two weeks, as a total sham. The way they have reacted to Haut de la Garenne is just revelatory. We are ruled by a government that is totally incompetent."
Since the investigation at Haut de la Garenne began, more than 160 victims have come forward to police and up to 40 potential suspects have been identified. Mr Syvret, a former health minister, has accused the government of operating within a "culture of concealment" by covering up the abuse allegations, a claim that the States of Jersey vehemently denies.
But Mr Tadier believes the inquiry has encouraged islanders to be more vocal in their criticism of politicians. "I think the abuse scandal mirrors our political scandal," he said. "For years, people have kept quiet but now they are speaking out."
Martyn Day, a Jersey-born student, runs the Facebook discussion group "Vote Frank Walker Out Of The States", which already has more than 1,000 members. He said the abuse investigation had made islanders more determined than ever to seek some sort of political reform. "It is certainly a good time now for the people of Jersey to try and speak up," he added.
In a statement, Jersey's Council of Ministers criticised the rally organisers for their "political undertones" and said none of its members would be attending. Mr Walker, meanwhile, refused to say whether he thought the island's political system, including the secret election of the chief minister, was in need of reform.
An ancient regime independent of Westminster
*Jersey is not a part of the United Kingdom or the European Union. It is constitutionally a dependency of the British Crown, with the Queen as head of state.
* The island, 12 miles off the coast of France, has its own legislative and taxation systems, which are a blend of Norman and English methods.
* Jersey (population 88,000) jealously guards its independence governing rights of residency. It is also reluctant to accept controls over its thriving financial services industry.
*It does not have a formal party political system.
* The legislature is called the States of Jersey and has 53 elected members: 12 senators (elected for six-year terms), 12 constables (heads of parishes elected for three years), 29 deputies (elected for three-year terms); the Bailiff and the Deputy Bailiff (appointed to preside over the assembly) and three non-voting members (the Dean of Jersey, the Attorney General, and the Solicitor General) who are appointed by the Queen.
* Senators have an island-wide mandate; deputies are elected for their local area.
* The British Government is responsible for the island's defence and global affairs.
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