Dr Wykeham McNeill and his mission to remain Vice-President

Out of a political dynasty emerges a true gentleman politician

Executive editor — special assignment

Sunday, August 19, 2018

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DR Wykeham McNeill serves the Opposition People's National Party (PNP) as if his life depends on it. But he insists, vigorously too, that it is a choice he made and not because he was born into a political family and the son of the famed Dr Ken McNeill.

When he was elected vice-president of the PNP two years ago, good friends of Wykeham McNeill felt his rise up the party ranks was inevitable. Even if he says he chose the party — because of what it stands for — no one who knows doubts that the party had chosen him, virtually from birth.

Next month he will seek to retain the position, battling it out with five others, all of whom fancy their chances on September 15 in the auspicious 80th anniversary year of Norman Manley's PNP.

But McNeill will not win because of his late revered father; nor because of his mother Valerie McNeill, a former councillor and one of the founders of the PNP Women's Movement; nor his grandfather Eustace McNeill who in his time ran alongside now National Hero Marcus Garvey in St Catherine.

Neither can McNeill be helped to achieve that victory — even if his close friends and staunch supporters feel certain of it — just by the fact that his uncle Roy McNeill was a former home affairs minister, because he served on the other side, as high as chairman of the competing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

Wykeham Neill will not be handed the position simply because his father once held the St Andrew East Central seat after party founder Norman Manley and that is now occupied by current Party President Dr Peter Phillips.

He must first battle it out with a formidable field of five: two other incumbents in Dr Fenton Ferguson and Dr Angela Brown Burke; and newcomers Phillip Paulwell, Mikael Phillips and Damion Crawford.

Ken (PNP) and Roy McNeill (JLP) set a great example

The 60-year-old medical doctor is a five-term Member of Parliament for Westmoreland Western, affectionately “West West” which, here we go again, was won by Ken McNeill in 1989 after being lost in the 1980 JLP avalanche.

“I tell people all the time that I am a member of the PNP, not because I grew up in a political, PNP family, but because of what the party stands for,” McNeill believes it's important to spell out.

“When I came to make my choice, I was moved by the social reforms the party was fighting for; the equality of opportunity; the fight for education especially for the poor; the insistence on land for the landless and all the rest of it.

“So it's more than having the PNP DNA in the blood. Yes, it's partly hereditary but most importantly, it's the principles on which this party stands and the work it has done to advance those principles,” says McNeill.

But the friendly political rivalry between the brothers Ken and Roy would serve him well and sharpen his perspective for that time when he would have to make up his own mind about his political future.

“I was never aware of any tensions between them. If there were any such, it would have had to be during the 1960s when I was too young to know it,” he explains. “My father and my uncle were very close and party politics did not get between them.”

That could well have laid the basis for the emergence of the gentleman politician that Dr McNeill would become and the man in whose company political friends and foes alike feel immediately at ease.

In the intervening years, young McNeill's first priority was his education. He was first headed to Howard University in the United States before financial constraints aborted those plans. Looking to the future, his parents persuaded him to accept a medical scholarship to Cuba in 1977, where he became Jamaica's first and sole medical student and then paved the way for the many others who would come after him to Fidel Castro's homeland. Upon graduation in 1983, he served as a doctor at the St Ann's Bay Hospital, St Ann.

Go west, young man, says P J Patterson

Six years later and now 32, Dr McNeill felt the unmistakeable pull towards greater involvement in the activities of the PNP and he took time off from a university course to campaign on the side for the party. By 1992, he had reached a point of no return.

About this time, McNeill and some partners started the Clinic of Sports Medicine and Physical Therapy, treating an array of athletes and he became one of the team doctors of the Reggae Boyz, the Jamaica national football team. So it came as no surprise when he was invited to chair the nascent Sports Development Foundation (SDF).

The good thing was that the SDF would not want for funds as it benefited from the tax on the national lottery. But McNeill found that that, and the enabling legislation, was all there was. It was up to him and his team to fashion the new organisation from scratch.

But he had a star-studded board of directors to work with, including the likes of a Mike Fennell; Howard Aris; Clayton Solomon; Keith Shervington; Molly Rhone; Howard McIntosh among others.

He especially likes the idea that among the many accomplishments of the SDF was the building of over 100 multi-purpose courts which are serving numerous communities across Jamaica.

In 1995, P J Patterson, now in his third year as prime minister and the second under his own 1993 mandate, appointed McNeill a senator and set him to work. In his first sectoral presentation, Dr McNeill moved a private members motion for legislation to introduce seat belts for motor vehicles and helmets for motor cyclists. That is now taken for granted.

Patterson was clearly pleased with McNeill because when he called general elections for 1997, he asked him to run in the Western Westmoreland constituency, taking over from Trevor Ruddock and father McNeill before that.

Won an election, lost his shirt

He laughs now upon reflecting that he won the election but nearly lost his shirt, having closed his private practice to concentrate on campaigning, and had had to reopen it immediately after.

“I have this habit of giving my all to anything that I commit myself to. It's how I do it. It's my hallmark,” says Dr McNeill.

He has held the seat since 1997; 2002; 2007; 2011 and 2016 — noting that previously, no one had ever won consecutive victories in 'West West'.

Explaining his success in the seat, McNeill suggests he has transformed the constituency.

“When I first went there, a Social Development Commission (SDC) study found that of 72 communities, only nine or 10 had running water, including Negril and parts of Grange Hill. Today, while we struggle with water shortages, the great majority now have access to running water.

“We are right now on the verge of completing a major water project to serve areas including Retirement, Good Hope, Orange Hill, Brighton, Little Bay and surrounding areas. Westmoreland has challenges bringing in water, but we have put in the necessary infrastructure.

“We always need more roads but we have made tremendous advancement in the road network. In terms of electrification, we are doing very well. In fact, we are now putting in electricity supplies in Egypt Gardens near Little London. The first phase is fully funded and is almost ready.

“Not surprisingly, to those who know me, education has been my priority. We have built several schools. We have established an education foundation first chaired by Ambassador Derick Heaven and now Garfield James, the principal of Little London High School. They have done tremendous work.

“We have organised job seminars for young people between 16 and 25, utilising the resources of HEART-NYS and the Ministry of Youth; we have organised retreats bringing together board chairman and principals of all 16 schools in the constituency,” he says.

McNeill is bragging now when he singles out the Broughton Primary School for topping the island in the TPDCo-TVJ tourism programme; and the Grange Hill Primary School where 12 students scored 95 or more in this year's GSAT exams, among the best in Jamaica.

“And this exam was held a mere two weeks after the mayhem in Grange Hill where 18 people were shot, eight killed, including one of the Grange Hill students who did not get to sit the exam,” McNeill recalled with obvious grief.

He also mentioned that Little London High was deemed the most improved school in mathematics in 2015 in the entire island, as a further example of the progress being made under his tenure.

McNeill, his feet now firmly planted on the rung of the leadership ladder in the party, was elected chairman of Region Six comprising Westmoreland, Hanover and St James, in 2005, and could boast that in the 2007 election, which the PNP lost nationally, it had increased the number of seats taken by the party.

Tourism minister and PAAC gladiator

Feeling that he had chalked up enough victories and with sufficient work under his belt, McNeill threw his hat in the ring for the vice-presidential election of 2008. He was among those who had run on Peter Phillips' slate against the party leader Portia Simpson Miller. It was his first taste of real defeat.

But all that was put behind when he was appointed minister of tourism and entertainment in Simpson Miller's Cabinet of 2012-2016, a tenure he speaks of with great pride.

With the party again out of power in 2016, Dr McNeill made a second bid as vice-president and this time emerged victorious. Oozing confidence, he believes the delegates will again ask him to continue with the work he has been doing.

As VP, he has specific responsibility for oversight of Region 5 (Manchester and St Elizabeth), along with Region Six; he is chairman of the party's fundraising committee; spokesperson on tourism and, importantly, chairman of the watchdog Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of Parliament.

At the helm of the PAAC, Dr McNeill has been visible over the past two years, and more recently thrown into the spotlight exposing suspicious activities at some State agencies, including Petrojam and the National Energy Solutions Limited (NESol).

“At the root of our parliamentary democracy is a phrase — 'no taxation without representation'. You must be able to monitor how your money is being spent and if it is being spent efficiently by the Government,” he insists. “The Westminster system demands it.”

As the man on the bridge, he declares: “I believe in integrity and honesty whether I am in Government or Opposition. I firmly believe that all the oversight committees of Parliament have an important role to play in monitoring the affairs of Government on behalf of the people.”

Asked who were his supporters in the VP campaign, McNeill shied away from calling names, saying only that he was “happy and humbled by the widespread support” he had been pledged.

And what of Damion Crawford who has openly pledged his support for him?

“Everybody knows that I have a lot of regard for Damion. He is a bright, charismatic and energetic young man. But despite my education and training of Damion, his domino game has not improved to the level I want,” McNeill resorts to riddle and humour.

“I have always worked closely with everyone, especially young people. Damion and Mikael (Phillips) are like my two little brothers. With them the party is in good hands. Fenton (Ferguson) and Phillip (Paulwell) are both friends and colleagues, as is Angela (Brown Burke).

“I am most proud that the PNP has been able to field such a strong cadre of qualified and competent people. The campaign has been the best example of a true intra-party democratic process.

“The elder party members brought me through and in like manner I want to do the same for the younger members,” Dr McNeill adds.

We did say he was the gentleman politician, didn't we?

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