The move to becoming a Republic in 1976 was a significant next step in our evolution as a nation after independence was achieved in 1962.
Both are important milestones. Both signal a direction for self-governance, autonomy and charting our course in the world of nations.
Sometimes we forget just how young we are: 57 years independent and 43 years a republic. In contrast, England took 1,000 years of bloody war before the Magna Carta (1215). Then it took another 800 years to evolve the equality of all citizens.
America took the Magna Carta and built on it to write their Declaration of Independence. This document framed the aspiration of a people and the equality of the citizens. Yet, the US remained divided between the North and South over the issue of slavery and fought a bitter civil war 1861–1865, one hundred years after its independence.
Venezuela fought its own war of independence, 1811–1823. That country spent the first years of independence in the grip of strong men, competing for power, leaving a legacy of feud that still persists in some ways in the present day.
Given the uneven development of nations, we are not doing that badly. But we are not doing well either.
In 380 BC, Plato wrote The Republic. In this work, Plato sees the purpose of the state as fostering justice for all citizens. To do this, however, the character of the citizen must be fostered and there has to be just laws. Justice can only be achieved by just people. Thus, character formation is vital for happiness of citizens and justice in the state, and happiness is dependent upon justice and this must be shared by all.
If there is a great challenge to us as we celebrate 43 years as a republic, it is in this regard. We do not have any sense, individual or collective that pushes towards justice and character formation. Nor do we have any sense of the individual good, as dependent upon the common good: My happiness is dependent upon the happiness of all.
Our current aspiration for individual wealth and happiness is the greatest challenge facing us. This Republic Day is a call to grow up.
If justice for its citizens is the goal of the republic, we have a long way to go. In Trinidad and Tobago today poverty is a crime. There are hundreds of people in prison simply because they are poor. They do not have the money to have a property free from debt to post bail. The laws allow for money in an account, but the judges do not.
The delays in the system mean that these people are in prison for longer than the sentence if they were found guilty. People have been let off as innocent after years in prison. This is a flagrant injustice to the invisible, the powerless.
There are laws in process to deal with this continued injustice that we have accommodated. The Bail (amendment) Bill 2019, if and when passed would go a long way to addressing this sorry state of affairs.
There are also unused existing laws. The Sentencing Commission Act came into operation in November 2000. It was updated in 2015. If this commission were funded and operational it would have a dramatic impact on justice in our Republic. We have had six governments since 2000 when the Act came into operation. If governments cannot enact the laws, then who can?
To achieve justice in the republic, according to Plato, we need (1)just laws that are strengthened by (2) the institutions and resources that are needed for them to work, and (3) citizens formed with sound character. In relation to (3) we have clearly misunderstood certification for education.
Our education system is a mass production factory that churns out citizens who often do not have the required competency for the next stage of their learning, and whose skills are a mismatch to the needs of the economic system.
Universal education is a vital commitment for any modern democracy. But it must be education, not certification, that is relevant to the needs of the economy and society.
To become the republic we are destined to become, we need to radically re-envision how we educate our citizens, young and old. Character formation for a just society where all citizens flourish needs to be our goal. We also need a different commitment to just laws and the institutions to ensure they are implemented justly.
—The Most Rev Charles J Gordon is Archbishop of Port of Spain