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How Thatcher’s ‘Act of injustice’ brought despair to Saints

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Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013
Baroness Margaret Thatcher, 1925-2013

A “great injustice” Margaret Thatcher perpetrated on the people of St Helena has been largely overlooked in coverage of her death.

Saints were denied their right of free access to the UK for nearly two decades, along with people of Tristan da Cunha, Ascension and most other British overseas territories.

A Falklands councillor, Mike Summers, has praised Baroness thatcher for transforming the fortunes of his islands after the 1982 invasion by Argentina.

He notes that she restored the Falkland islanders’ British citizenship, without mentioning that her government had taken it away in the first place – or that St Helena, with at least as good a claim to be British, was overlooked.

When full UK nationality was finally restored by the Labour government on 21 May 2002, on the 500th anniversary of St Helena’s discovery, Governor David Hollamby did not hold back.

Wearing full ceremonial rig for a speech at the annual St Helena’s Day celebrations, he declared: “St Helenians suffered a great injustice when the British Nationality Act of 1981 effectively reduced all the British dependent territories to second-class citizens.”

When Saints could not go marching in
When Saints could not go marching in

The legislation was passed to protect Britain from a wave of immigrants before the handover of Hong Kong to China, said the Daily Telegraph in 2002.

But “the baby was thrown out with the bath water,” said Mr Hollamby. Many Saints were all-but imprisoned on their own island, unable to lift themselves out of poverty.

Ironically, one of the few places they were able to travel to freely was the Falkland Islands. Many parents left their children behind to work at RAF Mount Pleasant in menial jobs.

Saints faced obstacles whenever they travelled to other countries because immigration officials were often reluctant to recognise the crude passports issued in St Helena. 

In the 1990s, The Bishop of St Helena’s Commission on Citizenship was set up to campaign for an end to islanders’ status as British Overseas Territory Citizens. It was co-chaired by Nicholas Turner, the vicar of Ascension, and Cathy Hopkins – now the Speaker of St Helena’s legislature.

Leading figures on the islands and in the UK were involved, including Dorothy Evans, Lawson Henry, John Clifford, Earl Henry, Owen George, and Trevor Hearl. Tristan da Cunha was included in the case for restitution.

After disruption caused by the breakdown of the RMS St Helena in 1994, the Commission produced a campaign pamphlet with the title, St Helena: The Lost County of England.

It argued that St Helena had been mistakenly classified as a British Colony in an Act of 1833, meaning that it was wrongly caught in the British Nationality Act 150 years later.

“In 1673 King Charles II confirmed by Royal Charter that the Island was to be regarded in perpetuity as a detached part of England, and its inhabitants as among its citizens,” it said. “The Island of St Helena is an outpost of Great Britain. It’s citizens are British, and always have been.”

The introduction to the pamphlet spoke of the “frustration and despair of all islanders at the erosion of their historic rights”. 

It went on: “An injustice has occurred. Most notably, Saint Helenians now require entry permits to visit part of their own country.

“A wrong has been done, and the moral demand for justice is common to all who are British, irrespective of colour, sex or creed.”

The paper argued that the loss of citizenship was not just immoral, but was also a religious wrong. And it hinted that the Conservative government itself – by this time headed by John Major – was immoral.

It asked: “Is there or is there not a moral basis to British government? The treatment of the British subjects of St Helena will answer that.”

The document even broached a taboo subject: “Is it racism? This is the nagging fear and shame that never leaves the stage…

“It does sometimes seem to be the case that Saint Helenians have been penalized for the colour of their skin. In particular it is true that Saint Helenians have as good as, or even better, a claim to be British as do the Falkland Islanders, with this one exception, that all the latter are white.”

The fear was dismissed: the British Government would not have used colour as the basis for denying nationality, said the pamphlet; the real factors were more subtle.

Nor was the slave heritage of many Saints a reason to withdraw British status, as some had suggested to the Commission – “often quite forcibly”.

The situation had come about simply because of an “ad hoc” law to deal with Hong Kong, said the pamphlet. “Its political bankruptcy will one day have to be acknowledged, and corrected.”

That acknowledgement came after Tony Blair’s Labour government promised to put matters right in its 1999 White Paper on overseas territories.

But the following year, campaigners took their case to the United Nations to try and force the British government to deliver on its promise. 

The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights declared that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality” – but that was precisely what had happened to the Saints and the people of Tristan da Cunha, and most of Britain’s other overseas territories.

The Saints’ case was put to the UN Committee on Decolonisation by Professor Hudson Janisch, a Canadian academic who was a direct descendant of St Helena’s only island-born governor, who had the same name.

A spokesman for the Foreign Office said the promise of British passports would be kept: “It will happen. It’s just a matter of time.”

Two years later, on 22 May 2002, the Telegraph reported:

St Helena’s 5,000-strong population on the remote Atlantic island staged a noisy double celebration yesterday marking 500 years since the island was discovered, and the restoration to the islanders of full British citizenship.

A Salvation Army brass band and the bugles and drums of the local Scouts played as Governor David Hollamby, in full ceremonial rig, represented the Queen at a march past.

As church bells rang out and a sun-drenched drizzle broke the heat, Saints – as the islanders call themselves – broke into applause at the news that the Princess Royal would visit in November. Islanders welcomed the news as recognition of their restored status.

Ironically, it was another Labour government that later “betrayed” St Helena, as many saw it, by defaulting on its promise to fund an airport for the island.

And it was a Conservative cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell, who finally pushed through the airport plan, bringing about the possibility of the kind of prosperity enjoyed by the Falkland islanders.

Baroness Thatcher died on 8 April 2013, at the age of 87.

A story went round that the Falklands capital, “Port Stanley” (as it is incorrectly known to the British media) was to be renamed “Port Margaret” in her honour. It was quickly dismissed by the Falkland Islands Government.

At the Castle in Jamestown, the people of St Helena – British once again, and famously loyal – were invited to sign a Book of Condolence.

“Flags were flown at Malf Mast on Tuesday 9 April,” said a St Helena Government statement, “and will be flown at Half Mast again on Wednesday 17 April, when the funeral ceremony, with full military honours, will take place at London’s St Paul’s Cathedral, following a procession from Westminster. The Queen, accompanied by the Duke of Edinburgh, will attend the service.”

St Helena celebrates the restoration of full citizenship
St Helena’s passport plea goes to the UN
(both stories from the Daily Telegraph, London)
A view from the Falklands on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, by Mike Summers

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