Tue | Dec 6, 2016

Civil society and the right to leadership

Published:Friday | December 12, 2014 | 12:00 AM

No one should forever be a prisoner to his past, being made, in a liberal democracy, to pay daily penance to which they formerly subscribed but have since jettisoned. Nor can such a person, in a democracy, be proscribed from political engagement, whether in competitive politics or via civil-society organisations.

Trevor Munroe, in this regard, must be able to enjoy his right to be a member of, or to lead, the National Integrity Action (NIA), a group that lobbies against corruption in Jamaica, or any other organisation whose members will have him in whatever capacity. That is the way of democracies.

For the record, as we are reminded by Dr Paul Ashley, the lawyer and public commentator, Professor Munroe, in addition to teaching at the University of the West Indies, used to be a communist. He headed the now-defunct Workers Party of Jamaica (WPJ), which had close relations with the hard-left element in Grenada's revolutionary government that imploded in 1983 with the murder of their charismatic and popular leader, Maurice Bishop. In Jamaica, for a time, the WPJ had a voice and profile well beyond its support.

As global communism retreated and the Soviet Union - whose vanguard party the WPJ sought to mirror - disintegrated, the collapse of the WPJ was inevitable. It finally, in the early 1990s, surrendered under the weight of internal disagreements, including the concerns key members had with Professor Munroe's leadership and a perception that the party was not quickly enough adapting to a new global political paradigm.

In the years since then, the professor has done much good work, including expanding his role as a public intellectual and serving as an independent member of Jamaica's Senate on the appointment of then Prime Minister P.J. Patterson. He also sought, unsuccessfully, electoral office for the People's National Party (PNP) under Mr Patterson's leadership.

More recently, he has been executive director of the NIA, working to right a problem which upwards of 80 per cent of Jamaicans perceive to run deep in Jamaica and is a major constraint to the country's social and economic development. He speaks emphatically on these issues, as is his right and the way of democracy.

freedom to question

It is also the way of democracy to question, as Dr Ashley did at a forum hosted by this newspaper, Professor Munroe's legitimacy and credibility to head such an organisation and in adopting the position that he does.

Having addressed Professor Munroe's antecedents, Dr Ashley asked: "Who appointed you king, and who are you accountable to on behalf of the Jamaican people?'

The assumption of civic action by 'private' citizens is an important part of the fabric of a democratic society. It is part of the checks and balances that help to drive a higher quality of democratic governance and to hold elected and other officials to account, especially in between the periods the wider citizenry votes in elections. In that regard, organisations like the NIA have proven beneficial to Jamaica.

But Dr Ashley's questions are not without relevance and go to the heart of an issue that has been raised by the PNP parliamentarian Raymond Pryce about the accountability of civil-society groups, some of which come to wield great influence, and, he believes, pursue, even though shielded, partisan political agendas. At the very least, Mr Pryce's ideas are worthy of serious debate.