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Ripton MacPherson — a distinguished political career

TROY CAINE

Saturday, February 05, 2011    

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THE passing of Ripton Stewart MacPherson has been sadly observed, but has also placed a sustained focus on an incredibly high number of former PNP members of parliament who have been leaving us with an almost unprecedented frequency since late last year. The party and the Jamaican people have actually just bade farewell to notable legislators like Donald Buchanan, Ben Clare, Col Leslie Lloyd, Dr Neil McGill, Horace Clarke, Vunnie Isaacs and not so long ago also, to Keble Munn and Lascelles Murray.

This time, it is the JLP which has been spared most of the grief, although they have had a few such as Dr Herbert Eldemire, Astill Sangster, Ryan Peralto, Whylie Hastings and Basil Buck who went with, or just a little before that group. But the JLP had consistent mourning during the 1990s when they lost a formidable number of former members such as Clifford Campbell, Gideon Aabuthnott-Gallimore, Tacius Golding, Karram Josephs, Robert Lightbourne, Lynden Newland, Errol Dunkley, Dr Ronald Irvine, Audley Woodhouse and Talbert Forrest. At that time, the PNP's fewer departed legislators included Sydney Pagon, Arthur Jones, Michael Manley and Rose Leon, who served under both parties.

Similarly, from late 1964 to early 1968, the JLP lost four prominent sitting members all in a row - Ken Jones, Donald Sangster, Elliston Wakeland and Clem Tavares. Then in another four-year period from 1967 to 1971, the PNP suffered the loss of BB Coke, Norman Manley, Maxie Carey and Dr Ansell Hayden.

The variance of members who have died over the years has therefore been quite an alternating cycle as it relates to the two major parties - sometimes many, sometimes only a few, and at other times, hardly any for a long time. But as a team player, debonair, yet a kind, caring person who served with distinction and stood tall with integrity in the jungle of Jamaica's political tribalism, it is no wonder that Ripton MacPherson would want to leave with a large section of the team, especially after that great innings of 88.

Born in Kingston on May 16, 1922, MacPherson, like two other former politicians, the JLP's David Lindo and Owen Stephenson, first passed under the arches at Munro College as a youngster before moving on to Wolmer's in his senior years. As a 16-year-old in 1938, Ripton MacPherson was a member of the seventh victorious Wolmer's team at Champs (under their legendary coach, Mr OG Brown) which brought back the trophy to Race Course (now Heroes' Circle) after a nine-year drought. The 15-man team which scored only 25 points and defeated JC by only 11/2 points was captained by Sam Street and included brothers Ainsley and Arthur Dujon, NB Smythe and a young LB "Coco" Brown as a Class 2 member.

Ripton MacPherson went on to become a solicitor in 1949 and was an eminent legal eagle until even after his entry into politics nearly two decades later. His political career, which spanned some 14 years for the PNP as a St Catherine councillor and member of parliament as well as Speaker of the House, was marked by a very high level of dedication, civility and maturity, and he was known to be quite a suave "political tiger".

Like many of his parliamentary contemporaries such as Eric Bell, Eli Matalon, Derrick Rochester, Dallas Young and Desmond Leakey, MacPherson also started at the local level before moving up to Duke Street. He won the Spanish Town North-West Division with a 57 per cent poll in the 1966 parish council elections and was one of only five PNP councillors elected in St Catherine that year. In the next parish council elections in 1969, he retained the same division with an improved 62.4 per cent poll when the PNP also improved their tally to eleven divisions to the JLP's 12 in the council, and where he served alongside fellow councillors like Enid Bennett, AU King, Cecil Clarke, Basil Hamilton and Baldwin E Jackson (father of present South St Catherine MP, Fitz Jackson).

Ripton MacPherson's move towards a seat in Gordon House on a PNP ticket had actually started in the 1967 general election when, as Councillor MacPherson, he contested the then newly created constituency of South St.Catherine against the JLP's Victor B Grant, a legal colleague and the incumbent attorney general. But he lost by only 450 votes, polling 4,010 (46.7 per cent) to Grant's 4,460 (51.9 per cent). Success would come in the sequel between them in the next general election in 1972 with Michael Manley's victorious entourage of 37 seats, when MacPherson easily turned the tables on Grant by a margin of 1,371, amassing 6,508 votes (55 per cent ) to the latter's 5,137 (43.4 per cent).

As the eighth Speaker of the House and the second of four attorneys to be so appointed, Ripton MacPherson wasted no time in exuding a firm, efficient and no-nonsense approach to his duties, which extended throughout the PNP's two-term administration of the 1970s and clearly established him as one of the best to grace the Speaker's Chair. Perhaps more than any other Speaker in our history, he presided over arguably Jamaica's most tempestuous political era, brimful of numerous controversies and with some of the most fiery and colourful political personalities to be elected to the House.

This was the Speaker who had to deal with and rein in the likes of Michael Manley, Tony Spaulding, DK Duncan, Dudley Thompson, Roy McGann, Hugh Small and Carl Thompson on one side, and with Edward Seaga, Wilton Hill, Dr Percy Broderick and a youth called Bruce Golding on the other side!

One unforgettable incident occurred during the 1975 Budget Debate when Seaga (as the new Opposition leader) and Golding tried unsuccessfully to use parliamentary standing orders to outmanoeuvre MacPherson in his ruling pertaining to the sequential order of presentations as they related to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition. Eventually, the strategy engaged by Mr Seaga to ensure that his speech was delivered after Michael Manley's was only achieved by taking it out of Gordon House and presenting it to a packed audience at the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel.

In 1976 when St Catherine's tally of seats was increased from five to seven, South St Catherine was made defunct and virtually the same geographical area (now divested of Spanish Town) was once more renamed the new South-East St Catherine constituency. The area which by then encompassed the ever-bourgeoning Portmore community, now gone beyond just Independence City, Edgewater and Bridgeport to include newer schemes like Waterford, Garveymeade, Passage Fort, etc, all strung together with the other older communities stretching from Central Village to the Hellshire Peninsula. This became the new seat that MacPherson retained in the 1976 general election, defeating the JLP's Harry Bent by 1,271 votes with a poll of 6,677 (54.8 per cent) to Bent's 5,406 (44.3 per cent).

By 1980 when the more radical elements of the PNP had taken charge, Ripton MacPherson and the other conservative members of the party went into political retirement and escaped the JLP tsunami which swept the island that year. This was quite unlike what befell his only elected namesake and another two-termer, the JLP's Jehoida McPherson who bit the dust when the PNP first won power 25 years earlier.

But Ripton MacPherson will always be remembered as one who made an indelible mark on the political life of the country. An older brother to Phyllis MacPherson-Russell, who in 1978 became the second woman to serve as a cabinet minister (and the first woman to do so from the Senate), together they also became the first brother and sister team to serve jointly in senior political posts of the same political administration, thus contributing significantly as one of the many political families that have played key roles in all spheres of nation building.

Troy Caine is a political historian, analyst and commentator.

trodencorp@gmail.com

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