Tuesday, 5 February 2013

The Gloves Are Coming Off

Sabrina Jean, Chair of the UK branch of the Chagos Refugees Group (CRG), reminded me last week that it had been a year since the 2012 Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the UK Chagos Support Association (UKChSA).  A significant milestone because it marked the start of the process that saw me elected to the committee in order to become the new editor of the monthly newsletter.  It was another chapter of my involvement with the UKChSA which begun in autumn 2004- just another person transformed from the broadcast of THAT documentary.

When I took on the role, I made a promise to another supporter.  I explained how the death of Lisette Talatte had made me realise that supporters needed to act with more urgency.  It was the catalyst that made me look at my own contribution to the battle for justice and in doing so “raise my game”. 

I think the realisation that someone as recognisable as Lisette should leave us was a stark reminder that the first generation of Chagossians was elderly and dying out.  Soon like the Dodo, they would be just a footnote in history.

So here was an opportunity to walk the walk.  A chance to take on a role in the UK which some supporters have referred to as being one of the most important positions within the UKChSA.  The newsletter is the main source of information for people interested in the cause and also serves as a signpost for future forthcoming events or matters of importance. It summarises recent news developments while also shaping the agenda for the month ahead and can serve to influence supporters to navigate their efforts in a particular direction.

I came into the role with my own ideas.  While not in anyway diminishing the sterling efforts of my predecessor (Celia Whittaker), there was a growing feeling which I shared that the overall age of people within our support network was too old and required an urgent injection of younger faces.  Fresh ideas were needed to steer the association onto a more radical path.  This was maintaining the buzz word for 2012: urgency.  Almost immediately I was pulled up by Celia who rightly explained that while it was not impossible to promote my own ideas from within, it would have to be a gradual process. To deviate from the “tried and tested” way of doing things would alienate too many supporters during a delicate period of transition.

A supporter remarked to me a month ago (still at a time when the disappointment of Strasbourg was fresh in the memory) that he felt there was a change in the mood of the British government towards the Chagossian community.  Something identified before the initial responses of the Foreign Office to the Strasbourg ruling, so clearly not a result of events just before Christmas.  He went on to suggest that Chagossians should be seen as loyal subjects of the Queen who were disappointed but grateful to those in Parliament who are trying to help.

I’m not sure Sabrina would entirely concur with those sentiments and I think she has her finger on the pulse of both the Mauritian and UK based communities more than most.  Yet the broader point was ultimately true: there is indeed a change of mood. 

When the Argentinean President brought the Falkland Islands issue back into the news last month which drew a robust response from the British government, there was no need to highlight the inconsistencies between the Falklands and the Chagos Islands.  Coming so soon after Strasbourg, the double standards and hypocrisy were plain for all to see.  For the first time commentators were lining up to point out the differences.

This is significant.  It means that our voice has been heard, and for the first time we can hear the echo of our arguments being relayed by others.  There have been times when working on this cause has resembled the futile action of banging one’s head against a brick wall.  We knew there was an injustice, and that the time to rectify this was long overdue.  But our voices were being systematically ignored, and we looked on enviously as the Gurkhas successfully integrated a celebrity into their campaign which almost overnight transformed their fortunes.

I have likened the recent declaration of support from the former deputy Prime Minister John Prescott as being our “Joanna Lumley” moment.  With the greatest of respect to Ben Fogle and Philippa Gregory (joint patrons of the UKChSA) the kind of pulling power that somebody like Prescott can bring to our cause is astronomical.  On one level, his political connections are invaluable.  Here is somebody who was at the very top of government for a decade.  Yet his political clout only tells part of the story.  Here is an instantly recognisable figure, irrespective of whether you share an interest in politics.

The next UKChSA AGM will take place next month, and there are a number of areas which Sabrina and I are currently exploring which we believe will enable us to work more effectively as an organisation.  Both the flagship website and official social network accounts are woefully undermanaged, in many cases updated several days after a major development occurs.  The work of supporters on such sites is invaluable and must be built upon, but the flagship bearers must be seen to be leading the way, effectively setting the agenda.  At the time of writing this post, the newsletter was published seven days ago and yet still is not on our website. 

That this has not been the case is not so much disappointing but an embarrassment to our organisation as a whole.  It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how such tools should be utilised.  To continue in its current format is unacceptable and cannot be accepted for much longer.  As a matter of urgency this needs to be addressed.

Personally speaking 2012 was a learning experience, a time to understand where the boundaries laid and where they could be extended.  2013 is very much a case of focussing on the latter and working to move the organisation forward. 

The honeymoon is over and the gloves are coming off.