Vere Bird

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The Right Honourable
Sir Vere Bird
Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda
In office
1 November 1981 – 9 March 1994
Monarch Elizabeth II
Governor General Wilfred Jacobs
James Carlisle
Preceded by Position Established
Succeeded by Lester Bird
Personal details
Born 9 December 1910
St. John’s, British Leeward Islands
Died 28 May 1999(1999-05-28) (aged 88)
St. John’s, Antigua and Barbuda
Political party Labour

Sir Vere Cornwall Bird Sr. (9 December 1910 – 28 June 1999) was the first Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. His son, Lester Bryant Bird, succeeded him as Prime Minister. In 1994 he was declared a national hero.

Bird was unique from other West Indian politicians, lacking in any formal education except primary schooling. He attended the St. John's Boys School, now known as The T.N. Kirnon Primary School. He was an officer in the Salvation Army for two years interspersing his interests in trade unionism and politics. He gave up the Salvation Army because he saw the way the land owners were treating the local black Antiguans and Barbudans; And decided to leave his post to fight for the freedom of his people, which he succeeded in doing. In 1943, he became the president of the Antigua Trades and Labour Union. He achieved national acclaim politically for the first time when he was elected to the colonial legislature in 1945. He formed the Antigua Labour Party and became the first and only chief minister, first and last premier, and first prime minister from 1981 to 1994. His resignation was due to failing health and internal issues within the government.

In 1985 Antigua's international airport, which was first named Coolidge, was renamed V.C. Bird International Airport in his honour.

Criticism and praise[edit]

The biggest criticism from the public of Antigua is the corruption and cronyism within the Labour Party and many claim the government is essentially a "family business" with the continuance of the Bird dynasty in control of political power as unquestioned.[citation needed] Bird's supporters reject these accusations and say that his actions were justified in order to throw off the institution of colonial sugar planters and the British colonial overlords. The Antiguan author Jamaica Kincaid compared the Bird government to the François Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti in her politically charged narrative A Small Place.

Former Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Vere Cornwall Bird was a member of an elite group of militant trade unionists who blazed a trail through colonial times up to or near political independence of the Caribbean countries.

The group included Alexander Bustamante and Norman Manley of Jamaica, Robert Bradshaw of St Kitts and Nevis, Grantley Adams of Barbados, Cheddi Jagan of Guyana, Ebenezer Joshua of St Vincent and the Grenadines and Eric Gairy of Grenada. Bird was among the early organizers of labour in colonial Antigua and Barbuda of the 1930s and 1940s. His biggest battles were fought in the sugar industry, where he achieved better wages for workers and recognition of the right of workers to have annual holidays with pay.

Bird, a tall, imposing figure (standing at 7 feet) even in his last years, was astute enough to recognize that those benefits would be limited as long as the big landowners held control of the government. Therefore, he actively encouraged the top executive of his union - the Antigua Trades and Labour Union - to run for legislative office. He agitated for a change in the qualification of candidates for the parliamentary elections since up to that time, only property owners could run for election.

Bird won a seat to parliament in the late 1940s and his party went on to dominate electoral politics in Antigua and Barbuda for several years. He was eventually to lead the islands into political independence from Britain. Bird left his mark on the labour movement, education and the Caribbean integration movement. One of Bird's dreams was a Caribbean that was united politically and economically. Bird ardently supported the West Indies Federation and when that collapsed in 1962, negotiated hard for a federation of the "Little Eight" countries.

In 1965, together with premiers Errol Barrow of Barbados and Forbes Burnham of Guyana, he brought the Caribbean Free Trade Association (CARIFTA) into being. That Association later led to the Caribbean Community and Common Market (Caricom), comprising 12 of the English-speaking Caribbean countries, two more than were members of the West Indies Federation. On 1 November 1981, he became the first Prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda. Since then, in a rare case in modern day Caribbean politics, he led his party to an election victory in 1984 in which the Antigua Labour Party (ALP) won all the Antiguan seats in the Legislature.

Life and career[edit]

Bird was born in a poor area of St John's, the capital. Unlike most of his giant political contemporaries - such as Manley and Adams, who were distinguished lawyers, and Trinidadian Sir Eric Williams, a scholar - Bird had little formal education. He received only a primary education at the St John's Boys School.

In 1939, when the Antigua Trades and Labour Union (ATLU) was formed Bird was an executive member. By 1943 he had become president of the union and was leading a battle for better working conditions and increased pay against the white sugar barons. The union entered electoral politics for the first time in 1946 and Bird won, in a by-election, a seat in the legislature and was appointed a member of the Executive Council.

When universal adult suffrage was introduced here in 1951, the ATLU, under the banner of the Antigua Labour Party, won all seats in the legislature, a feat it repeated until 1967, making Antigua a country with a multi-party system but a freely voted one-party control.

The ministerial system was introduced in 1956 and the Governor gave Bird the trade and production portfolio, and when further constitutional advancement came in 1960, he was named Chief Minister.

In 1967, Antigua became the first Eastern Caribbean island to receive the associated statehood constitution from Britain that gave internal self-government but with London remaining responsible for foreign policy and defence.

Bird, radical in his younger days, had been shifting to the right, and in the face of severe social unrest that forced a split in the ATLU in 1967 and rioting in 1968, the ATLU lost its tight hold of Antigua and Barbuda politics.

Out of the split, the Antigua Workers Union was formed and later the Progressive Labour Movement (PLM), and Bird decided to resign because he felt it was not right to hold both positions.

In 1968 the PLM won four seats in a by-election and by 1971 Bird was out of power having not only lost the government to the PLM but also the parliamentary seat he had held for 25 years.

A former Lieutenant, the PLM's George Walter, became the island's new premier.

But Vere Bird's political exile was to last for only five years and by 1976, he regained the government, having campaigned against independence on the grounds that Antigua was not yet psychologically ready. He won the election again in 1980, this time with independence being a major campaign plank. With his powerful family, he ruled Antigua and Barbuda up to 1994, when he quit politics, having paved the way for one of his sons, Lester, to take over as Prime Minister.

  • Chief Minister of Antigua from 1 January 1960 to 27 February 1967
  • Premier of Antigua from 27 February 1967 to 14 February 1971
  • Premier of Antigua from 1 February 1976 to 1 November 1981
  • Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda from 1 November 1981 to 9 March 1994.

He died in St. John's on 28 June 1999.

External links[edit]

Political offices
Preceded by
Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda
1 November 1981–9 March 1994
Succeeded by
Lester Bird