The Parliament of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, on Thursday, held its last sitting in the 200-year-old building that was built to be the home of the legislative council and the court house.
The two-storey building, located across from the historic Market Square, is currently in need of extensive repairs which will begin sometime after the High Court, which is located on the ground floor, is moved to another location.
In the meantime, the national assembly will meet at a temporary Parliament building erected in Calliaqua until a new Parliament building is built in Richmond Hill.
During Thursday’s special sitting to mark the final gathering of the national assembly in that chamber, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves traced the history of the building and the people who passed through it.
Opposition lawmakers, on the other hand, focused on the missed opportunities under the ruling Unity Labour Party administration to pass certain types of legislation, the fact that the opposition was not allowed to debate a motion of no confidence, and that 11 years ago, a number of opposition lawmakers were injured when police physically removed them from the assembly chamber on the orders of then speaker Hendrick Alexander.
“This building, as old as it is, carries within its walls echoes of voices from the past that have argued and jousted back and forth, with sometimes great feeling and passion, and even anger at one another,” Opposition Leader Godwin Friday told lawmakers and media audiences.
“And over time, we begin to reflect and to judge those moments with the long perspective of history,” he said in the chamber, the occupants of whose Strangers’ Gallery included former lawmakers and speakers of the House of Assembly.
‘today is a good day’
Meanwhile, in detailing the history of the building, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves said:
“The story of the building is really on the 15th of May 1798, there’s a resolution in the Legislative Council, which was submitted for the erection of the courthouse — for the courthouse to be below and the Legislative Council above.”
Gonsalves said that the record shows that there was a building on the location which was constructed by the French, who had interrupted British colonialism for four years — 1779 to 1783.
“And that building was demolished and this was put in place,” Gonsalves said, adding that the resolution also provided for the erection of a jail, but not the one currently known as His Majesty’s Prison, located on lands to the back of the Court House.
“… I think today is a good day. And I want to say, for members who are here on the opposite side, that at the end of the day, we are here as representatives of the people. And whatever we may say about each other that we give recognition that we see all of us in our own way to see how we can represent the people of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the prime minister said.
“One thing I can say for sure, for those persons who always look at politicians as some species to be demeaned, the record will show that in this country, the immense progress which has taken place in this country has taken place since universal adult suffrage in 1951, since the ministerial system came into being, since internal self-government and particularly since independence in every material particular. And that is in no small part due to the generations of leaders who have been here since 1951. And I thank them all for their service,” said Gonsalves, who has been in office since March 2021 and is the nation’s longest serving prime minister.
‘Some fade into history; others are remembered’
The opposition leader said he agreed with the prime minister that it was a good day “because we are here today to recognise that this building … has represented, has seen the progress of our country and has seen our emergence as a modern state, taking its place in the world, seeking to perfect our democracy”.
Friday said that the prime minister’s presentation was “kind of humbling in a way.
“Because, over the long course of history, especially when we start with the time of Adult Suffrage, we have seen the rise of persons who have become part of the folklore of this country”.
The opposition leader said that in examining the history of the Parliament building, “we have seen political parties … and political figures rise, play their part on the stage and then they move on.
“Some fade into history; others are remembered. The humbling part of that is that for all of us, it comes to an end — whether it’s 22 years, five years or three years,” Friday said.
“And we have to be mindful of that, to ensure that the time we spend in this chamber is not just the accumulation of years, but rather it is put to effective use in providing a better life for people, in expanding and protecting our democratic rights and values and ensuring that all those who come after us, who one day might look at our pictures on the walls can point to them with pride and to say that this person has done some good for his or her country,” said Friday, who was first elected to Parliament in March 2001.
“I actually like this building. I like this occasion and Kingstown. I like it’s across the street, where people can come and protest and exercise their democratic rights. That it’s close to them,” Friday said.
“Even when we’re in government, we might widen the pathway outside so more people could protest if they want to? That is their democratic right.”
‘aggressive effects of age and decline took root’
And, House Speaker, Rochelle Forde noted that the final sitting was taking place on the day that the Clerk of the House, Nicole Herbert proceeded on leave until Sept. 22 after which her retirement officially begins.
Herbert has a career at the House of Assembly spanning 25 years. She became deputy clerk on Nov. 8, 2000 and clerk on Oct. 1, 2004.
Also, the sitting came two weeks after the May 13 death of Deputy Clerk of the House of Assembly, Sharon Nash, whose career in the public service began on Nov. 27, 1989 and at the House of Assembly on Oct. 3, 2006.
Forde personified the assembly chamber, saying “she” and the house of parliament have “served many parliamentarians faithfully and well and has and continues to be a place revered by all who crossed the threshold of her entryway, even into the twilight of her functional years. And yes, I am referring to the chamber.
“As the aggressive effects of age and decline took root, she has, in all the circumstances, maintained her dignity, with consistent grace and poise sophistication, which is evidence here today, as she takes her final bow.”
The speaker said that as the Parliament transitions to a new location, “we will take with us some physical reminders from this chamber into the new temporary Parliament building and in that small yet symbolic way, we will transplant historical significance of the old into the new as an expression of gratitude, respect and continuity.”