To the Friends from Vice-Admiral Sir David Steel, Governor of Gibraltar
In an earlier interview, not long after I arrived here, I said that I doubted that any British Governor, anywhere around the world, felt more welcome than I have felt in Gibraltar. I reflected on my first Sunday on The Rock, going out for a jog along Line Wall Road and stopping at a map to find my way – but mostly to catch my breath! From behind, I heard someone call “Governor, welcome to Gibraltar”. I turned to find a young woman, walking past, but looking at me and smiling broadly. How she could possibly have recognised me in my shabby running kit I shall never know, but she did. Even now, six months after stepping off the ‘plane on a very hot summer’s day, I am approached regularly and asked how I am. Such, as I have discovered, is the Gibraltarian way – full of kindness and consideration.
My arrival could not have been more low-key or perhaps unprecedented. No guns, no marching bands, no ceremony at all – Covid had seen to all that! The Chief Minister and his lovely wife Justine were kind enough to meet me off the scheduled British Airways jet, and Fabian was gracious in entertaining me to dinner that night. In Parliament the next day I took the oath and only then did I really start to comprehend how my early time in Gibraltar would be rather different than I had hoped or expected.
Through excellent and trusted governance, outstanding public compliance and a good deal of luck, Gibraltar has escaped the very worst of the Pandemic. Life has continued reasonably unrestricted, although there has been varying restrictions on social gatherings and events. National Day in September was, I am informed, not a patch on previous years, but many still gathered in open spaces, and the beaches remained a popular draw for some, but they were far from packed. I was still able to see and ‘feel’ the pride that Gibraltarians have in their land but also their continuing love and admiration for the United Kingdom. The Queen’s Birthday Parade and Party and the Literary Festival were cancelled, there have been no military ceremonies, and while some smaller exhibitions have continued, there have been no social occasions of any significance, in The Convent or otherwise.
Despite all the constraints and cancellations of events, I have recognised that resilience is a Gibraltarian’s middle name. There has never been a challenge to the Government’s policies in dealing with the virus, everyone has heeded the warnings and managed their lives accordingly. The outdoors has remained, however, the sanctuary of the majority, taking the sun, engaging in exercise or doing that British / Gibraltarian thing, walking the dog! In the main, sports clubs have remained open and I have been amazed at how each school has changed its way of teaching to suit the more restricted times. Gibraltar has adapted, families have come together, and businesses have shown immense initiative and agility in the face of what might otherwise have been a very bleak trading period. The Covid infection rate has remained comparatively low and, until very recently, Gibraltar had escaped having to mourn for any loss from the virus. Sadly (as I write at the end of November), five members of the community have recently succumbed to the virus. The only thing one can say with any certainty, however, is that but for excellent leadership, superb medical services and a track and trace system that has been described to me by an NHS health expert as the best in the World, the losses might have been far worse.
Perhaps rather more below the radar but so very complicated has been the negotiations about Gibraltar’s status after the United Kingdom and Gibraltar complete the transition period on leaving the European Union. The negotiations have been intense, and I pay tribute to the perseverance and dogged determination of the Government of Gibraltar and to the officials in the Foreign Office, in London, in Madrid and of course in The Convent, who have worked day and night to secure an arrangement with Spain. Those reading this will completely understand how domestic politics in Spain, together with the understandable fierce determination of Gibraltar to maintain its sovereignty, have conspired to make compromise and pragmatism difficult to achieve. I believe, however, at the time of writing, that we may be on the cusp of achieving what many thought impossible – an agreement that will for the time being (and I choose my words carefully) ensure fluidity at the border. On this turns the Gibraltarian economic model that has benefited this territory so well over the last couple of decades.
As Christmas approaches, I have just one wish that some might consider very selfish but it is, at the same time, a heartfelt wish for everyone. I look forward to being part of the Gibraltar that my predecessor and his predecessor loved. I have enjoyed a little of it, but now I want the volume turned up! In addition, I hope that for all of us the world without Covid returns soon, and that the Friends of Gibraltar might visit The Rock again and feel able to remark that nothing has changed since their last visit. If they are able to say that, then ‘normal’ will have returned.
I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a wonderful New Year.