Mike Henry's fall came at a really bad time

Octogenarian politician has no prospect of a political return

A Sunday Observer news analysis

Sunday, December 04, 2011

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THREE years almost to the day he resigned, or was fired, as transport and works minister, Mike Henry was seen doing the 'Gully Creeper', or a version of it, to the delight of his constituents and a television audience. It was 'chicken merry, hawk deh near' and the portly politician could not have known the ignominious end awaiting him.

He would become only the second former information minister after the People's National Party's (PNP) Colin Campbell in the Trafigura affair to have his head chopped off at the height of a scandal that his Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) could not contain.

But the fall of Lester Michael Henry, author, publisher and politician, has greater significance beyond the fact that the timing was so bad -- on the eve of a general election that the ruling JLP needs so desperately to win.

Henry had always rated himself a serious politician and had never hid his ambitions of one day becoming party leader and prime minister of Jamaica.

Last week, at 80 years old, he saw those hopes crash to a sad, final end and the only question as of now is how will future men speak Mike Henry's name.

Henry, who received a British education at Ealing Technical College in the United Kingdom, after attending the elementary school, Beckford & Smith, now St Jago High in St Catherine, is said to have spent his all on politics.

According to a close family member, he was never able to tell his Central Clarendon constituents no, often to the detriment of financing his Kingston Publishers firm which is responsible for several decent titles, including Marley and Me by Don Taylor, the former road manager for reggae icon Bob Marley, the Third World's first megastar.

Henry entered representational politics in 1976, at a time of bitter ideological clashes between Michael Manley's Cuban-backed democratic socialist People's National Party (PNP) and Edward Seaga's conservative United States-backed JLP. It was also a time remembered for the controversial State of Emergency declared on June 19, 1976. He was beaten by the PNP's OD 'The Ram' Ramtallie, an affable farmer, in the December 15 elections of that year but remained undaunted.

In 1980, when the tide had swung, Henry was one of 50 JLP candidates to have won seats in the bloody October 30 election that marked the worst beating taken by any of the two major political parties which have shared state power in Jamaica since Adult Suffrage in 1944. The PNP won a mere 10 seats.

As a first-time member of parliament, Henry was rewarded with the high-profile portfolio of minister of state for information and culture. Showing he meant business, the junior minister immediately ripped up the contract held by the Kingston office of the Inter Press Service (IPS) Third World news agency with three state-owned entities at the time — the now-defunct JBC Radio and Television, the now defunct Jamaica Daily News newspaper and the Jamaica Information Service (JIS).

The JLP had accused IPS, which had headquarters in Rome, of being part of the socialist apparatus. It turned out that IPS was heavily backed by the United Nations in its quest to reverse the flow of information from the traditional rich to poor nations to poor to rich nations.

In the years following, Henry also served as minister of tourism and agriculture. He won every election from 1980 to 2007 when he became Bruce Golding's minister of transport and works.

But it was not all smooth sailing.

When Labourites developed the courage to challenge Seaga's autocratic leadership style, after several bad losses at the polls to the PNP, Henry became a casualty, much like Golding, Pearnel Charles, Douglas Vaz, Edmund Bartlett, among many others to be sidelined by the party.

But he found a niche as a spokesman of sorts for the reparations movement which pressed Britain — without success so far — to pay back the descendants of African slaves for the decades of brutal work upon which the British empire was built.

Henry also won a small victory when he got the Oxford University Press to apologise over their definition of Maroon and their reference to National Heroine Nanny of the Maroons in 2009.

In Opposition, Henry articulated ambitious plans for a multi-billion-dollar development of the Vernamfield race course into a modern airport for freight in Clarendon, after suggesting it could be a better site for the main international airport.

He also made headlines for opposing the sale by Dr Omar Davies of Air Jamaica's lucrative Heathrow slots to Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic Airways, saying it was a give-away. That would come back to haunt him.

Back in Government in 2007, Henry found himself in charge of Air Jamaica. He immediately revisited the sale of the Heathrow slots. On the eve of Virgin's inaugural flight from the London airport to Jamaica, Henry announced he wanted a review of the sale agreement.

When Branson did not countenance such a review, Henry boycotted the ceremony marking the inaugural flight in Kingston. Embarrassed, Golding yanked responsibility for Air Jamaica from Henry. In a way that was the beginning of the end.

As Jamaica ramped up relations with the hugely successful Chinese, a deal was struck to provide US$400 million in loan funds to finance what came to be known as the Jamaica Development Infrastructure Programme (JDIP) to build and repair roads across Jamaica. Henry was in charge.

But fanning off claims by the Opposition PNP that the JDIP was being used corruptly, Henry later found himself in severely hot waters. When Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis told Parliament's Public Accounts Committee of the many shortcomings of the programme, the die was cast.

Among the worst elements of the scandal, it emerged that over $100 million was spent from JDIP funds to refurbish the National Works Agency (NWA) which was carrying out the JDIP.

Henry continued to maintain that the JDIP was intact and everything was above board. But as public anger mounted, Prime Minister Andrew Holness stepped in on November 19 and relieved him of responsibility for the portfolio. It was déjà vu for Henry.

Patrick Wong, the NWA boss, was also out.

Ten days later, with no sign of public ire abating, and the need for damage control growing, Holness took a decisive step. He fired Henry. Permanent Secretary Dr Alwyn Hales was the third casualty.

Henry maintains a tenuous hold on his position of JLP chairman and says he will concentrate on his constituency.

But at 80 years old, with a 39-year-old as leader of his party and prime minister, a scandal soiling his name and no prospect of a political return, the writing is clearly on the wall for Lester Michael 'Mike' Henry.


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