LAST GOVERNOR GENERAL: Sir Solomon Hochoy in monarchical wear.

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Fear on eve of republican status

By Louis B Homer South Bureau

TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO will today celebrate the decision 36 years ago to became a republic within the Commonwealth of Nations.

However, it is not a widely known fact that the country became a republic on August 1, 1976.

The event was celebrated as a public holiday on September 24, the date when the Parliament of Trinidad and Tobago met after the September 13 general election held under the new Republican Constitution.

In 1984, eight years later, the National Days and Festivals Committee, under the chairmanship of Muriel Donawa-McDavidson, Member of Parliament (1966-1971) for the constituency of Fyzabad, introduced a national pageant to celebrate the historic day.

In resplendent colour and striking portrayals, there were floats parading at the Queen's Park Savannah, Port of Spain, to highlight Republic Day celebrations. Many of the floats were sponsored by the business community. The scenes resembled a mini-Carnival celebration.

Spectator participation was tremendous as the parade moved around the Savannah, featuring ole mas characters and other cultural presentations, accompanied by tassa drummers and steelbands,

The change from monarchy to republican status was as controversial as the change from colonialism to Independence. 

The public at large had varying views concerning the sudden change. Some sectors of the society were of the view that it was a political ploy to celebrate the 20th year since the People's National Movement gained power on September 24, 1956.

Others saw it as a dangerous change because nearby Venezuela operated as a republic and, to them, becoming a republic meant Trinidad and Tobago might have a number of coup d'etats similar to Venezuela.

There was also talk that since this country wanted to become a member of the Organisation of American States (OAS) it had to remove the Queen as Head of State and select its own Head of State.

Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams had argued that although T&T was "geographically close to the American mainland, colonial policy had forced Trinidad and Tobago to look outward to Europe. This state of affairs was not to be tolerated by the PNM".

Trinidad and Tobago became the first Commonwealth Caribbean state to be admitted to the OAS.

The task of allaying fears of political conspiracy by the public was in the hands of Ellis Clarke, then constitutional adviser to government. Clarke spent a considerable amount of time educating the public concerning the constitutional changes that had to be introduced in Parliament.

In the end, he succeeded in his stated mission and produced a Constitution, very similar to the Independence Constitution with the following changes:

The inclusion of a number of fundamental human rights and freedoms to safeguard citizens from arbitrary government and negative acts of the Executive or other bodies or authorities which may be inconsistent with the concept of the rule of law.

The Constitution firmly established a Cabinet system of government under which Ministers were responsible to the legislature, and throughout to the country. The Head of State, a President, replaced the Queen.

After 18 years in operation, the need for a change from an Independence Constitution to a Republican Constitution was debated in Parliament when Trevor Sudama, Member of Parliament for Oropouche, tabled a motion concerning the inordinately high number of public holidays.

Speaking on a debate in the House of Representatives in October 1994, Sudama, a member of the Opposition, had questioned the reason for declaring Republic Day as a national holiday.

He said, "Madam Speaker, I want to ask what has the change to a republican form of government done for our political system, apart from replacing the Head of State by a President as against a Governor General, who was a representative of the Queen."

Then-prime minister Patrick Manning, in response to Sudama's observation, said, "The change to republican status also was accompanied by a new Constitution in Trinidad and Tobago, and a move away from a purely ceremonial Head of State that has some authority."

Sudama reminded Manning that during 1976-1981 in Parliament, "You were on the periphery of everything, so you cannot say you were in the government and an active participant in constitutional and political decisions. You have no experience as to how the Independence Constitution operated before."

Clarke, the architect of the Independence and Republican constitutions, was the first to be appointed President of the Republic. He was appointed unanimously by the presidential electoral college of both Houses of Parliament in 1976 and was given a second term in office, which ended in 1987.

Following disagreements with the new National Alliance for Reconstruction (NAR) government, Clarke decided not to seek a third term of office.

He was succeeded by Noor Mohammed Hassanali.

Clarke, a career public servant, had served as Solicitor General (1954-1956), Deputy Colonial Secretary (1956-1957), Attorney General (1957-1962). After Independence, he served as Ambassador to the United States, Canada and Mexico, and Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

In 1972, he succeeded Sir Solomon Hochoy as Governor General until his election to President in 1976.

He was invested as a Companion of St Michael and St George by Queen Elizabeth II in 1960, and was awarded a knighthood as Knight Grand Cross of that Order in 1972.

Although he ceased to use the title Sir after this country became a republic, on retirement from the presidency he readopted his title and was generally referred to as former president Sir Ellis Clarke.

He was one of six experts worldwide invited to submit reports to Australia's Republic Advisory Committee in 1993, detailing his country's experience in moving from a constitutional monarchy to a republic.

On November 24, 2010, he suffered a massive stroke and died on December 30, two days after his 93rd birthday.

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