Monday, April 15, 2024

Connell – a man for the people


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The name John Connell is readily associated with jurisprudence – a criminal lawyer of some repute. He was a judge in the local Court of Appeal and also served as a permanent judge on the Human Rights Court for Latin America and the Caribbean.   Connell also made a foray into politics, and many will remember his public dismissal from the Barbados Senate in 1976 by National Hero Errol Barrow, then leader of the opposition. As lawyer and politician, John Connell made waves.But the now retired legal luminary regards none of these as the hallmark of his life. While he acknowleges that he has made a contribution in the area of law, the thing dearest to him is his work in the area of conservation.The Government of Barbados recognised his contribution last year with the award of Barbados’ second-highest honour, The Companion of Honour for public service and his contribution to the legal profession.But he says: “When this recent honour was conferred on me, I learnt that it was conferred because of my services to law. That disappointed me because I think that I put more into the environment than I put into law. Law was my job . . . but I loved the environment.”He was the first director of the Parks and Beaches Commission, a forerunner of the National Conservation Commission, working alongside conservationists such as the late Iris Bannochie, Donald Wiles, Courtney Forde, Canon Harold Tudor and Garry Duesbury. Assuming the presidency of the Caribbean Conservation Association, he set about having that constitution changed and lobbied regional governments and NGOs for the kind of support that helped create a vibrant organisation for the preservation of the region’s natural beauty. This is why he regrets that “everything about my contribution to the environment was erased from my résumé”, prepared for delivery by the orator at the presentation of The Companion of Honour.He insists “it was the environment that was dearest to my heart”.Still, he is proud of his achievements. “I came from very poor family. My father was a carpenter, my mother was a needleworker. I got where I am because they had the good sense to make sure that I had a secondary education.”“I left here in 1958 and went to London. There were two types of persons who went to London in those days – either those who won the Barbados Scholarship and went straight into Oxford and Cambridge and those places, and those like me.”Connell worked as a bus conductor, in factories, in restaurants, all to finance a legal education. He was finally awarded a scholarship to Holborn College of Law.The experience in Britain saw what some people considered a radical young lawyer returning to Barbados.“Unlike many lawyers in Barbados, I saw the English society from both sides. I saw how black people were treated in England in those days and I felt that I should come back and tell Barbadians about it.“But I was somewhat disapointed. People in England warned me that Barbadians were not going to accept what I was saying. But I am satisfied with my conscience that I came back and I told them what it was like. “That is the black power chapter of my life for which I make no apologies.” He was about age 29.Many times since then he has questioned his decision to return to Barbados. “I gave up two jobs in England and came back here. “You know the years I have regretted that? I lectured law full time at the Balham and Tooting Polytechnic during the day, and in the evening lectured at the Woolwich Polytechnic.”When he came back he formed a political alliance with a group of like thinkers – the late Leroy Harewood, Calvin Alleyne, Glenroy Straughn. Together they challenged social and political issues of the day under the banner of The People’s Progressive Movement.When that failed, he was invited by a senior member of the Democratic Labour Party to join that political party, there beginning another interesting phase of his life.And in this Sunday Sun interview, he took the opportunity to clear the air on one point: “A lot of people feel that I was appointed to the Senate by Errol Barrow. Errol Barrow would never appoint me to the Senate. He never liked John Connell.“After he lost the election in 1976, he went to Miami on a sabattical and left “Sleepy” [Sir Frederick] Smith as the leader of the opposition and “Sleepy” appointed me to the Senate.“That is why Barrow dismissed me from the Senate. I was never his appointment.”The story of that dismissal is legendary. As an opposition senator appointed by the Democratic Labour Party, Connell voted in support of a Barbados Labour Party Government bill to increase constituencies from 24 to 28.“When [the bill]  came to the Senate, I voted in support of it because they had made it clear to me that they had no intention to repeal it and they were doing what both political parties are constantly doing, fooling the people of Barbados and telling them they intend to do one thing, and when they get power they don’t do it.” Another DLP senator, Dennis Hunte, also voted in favour of the bill. A few days later both Connell and Hunte were dismissed from the Senate at a public political meeting.Today Connell speaks humorously about the experience, but posits the view that “there are people who offer themselves for a seat in Parliament and don’t have the testicular fortitude to go and do what they know they should do and as a result Barbados in my view is slipping, because you must have some courage to stand up for your views if you believe in them”.Having undergone double bypass surgery 12 years ago, the 72-year-old has slowed down and enjoys a quiet life with his wife Mary at their Edgehill Heights, St Thomas home.There he ponders his dream to help disadvantaged people in the Caribbean. “I want to get in a position in which I can relieve pain and suffering and illness, particularly among people who cannot afford to pay.”


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