British territories demand right to lay Cenotaph wreaths

Gibraltar leads campaign to stop Foreign Secretary acting on its behalf at Remembrance ceremony

Brian Brady,Whitehall Editor
Sunday 02 November 2008 01:00

Outposts of the former British Empire are demanding a central role on one of the few occasions when the modern Commonwealth gathers to remember its shared history.

Preparations for the annual Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London have been disrupted by a row after the overseas territories (OTs) objected to the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, laying a wreath on their behalf. The 14 tiny territories, including Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, insist that they should be allowed to commemorate their own war dead by laying individual wreaths at the Cenotaph.

But, after a protracted diplomatic exchange with the Government, they have been told that they will have to settle for Mr Miliband doing the job for them – although they may be allowed to lay a joint wreath in future years.

In letters between the OTs and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) obtained by The Independent on Sunday, ministers and civil servants have repeatedly opposed any changes to the ceremony, which will commemorate the 90th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice next Sunday. But the excuses have not placated the tiny territories, which intend to step up their demands to be granted the same rights as more than 40 larger Commonwealth nations allowed to pay individual tributes during the event.

"Why should the Foreign Secretary lay the wreath on our behalf when we are perfectly capable of doing it ourselves?" said Albert Poggio, the Gibraltar government's London representative. "The Overseas Territories all played their own part in the war effort, particularly during the Second World War, and many of us have provided people for the British armed forces since. We have a right for our contribution to be recognised."

Mr Poggio, who was born in Northern Ireland after all Gibraltar's civilians were evacuated three times during the Second World War, began the campaign for equality seven years ago with a letter to Robin Cook. He told the then Foreign Secretary: "Such a move would justifiably recognise the unique and significant contribution of Gibraltarians in times of armed conflict."

In February 2001, however, the then Foreign Office minister Keith Vaz wrote back to say that, although the Government was "deeply indebted for Gibraltar's contribution to the defence of the United Kingdom", he would not change the rules.

The cause was taken up by the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association, which complained that its members were not officially invited to attend the service, let alone lay a wreath. An official in the FCO Protocol Division reported that the then Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, had decided "that he would rather leave the ceremony as it is".

After a meeting between OT leaders, Labour MP Lindsay Hoyle and ministers, the Foreign Office has proposed a compromise that would allow one representative to place a wreath on behalf of all 14 territories.

Mr Poggio said it was "a Plan B solution". He accepted it as an improvement, "but I still want to see all the territories, especially Gibraltar, given the right to lay their own wreaths. We can lay all our wreaths in the same amount of time that it takes to lay one," he said.

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