Seaga the best political leader, says SmithSunday, May 30, 2021
SMITH... had they disarmed Mr Seaga's
Former Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister Derrick Smith ranks Edward Phillip George Seaga as the best political leader he had experienced in over 40 years in active politics.
But, unlike most Jamaicans, Smith doesn't limit his choice to Seaga's achievements in rebuilding the post-colonial Jamaica economy, but more so his political achievements.
“In terms of the circumstances in which he took over the country (in 1980), going through the Cold War and stabilising the economy, and effectively handling major disasters like Hurricane Gilbert in 1988, I think he was the best,” Smith said.
“To me his greatest achievement was to prevent Jamaica from getting into the grasp of communism by winning the 1980 General Election,” Smith told the Jamaica Observer in an interview on his close relationship with his former party leader
He also related an experience when he and Seaga were were cornered in a polling station in Maverley, St Andrew North Western, by an aggressive crowd of People's National Party (PNP) supporters and an equally assertive police team who tried to disarm the JLP leader's security team which he recalled as their most “frightening” experience.
Jamaica remembered the late prime minister's on Friday, May 28, the anniversary of his birth, with the main event being a wreath-laying ceremony at National Heroes' Park, headed by Prime Minister Andrew Holness and members of his Cabinet. The commemorative ceremony marked the 91st anniversary of Seaga's birth.
In addition to his many achievements in creating the basic fiscal and economic infrastructure, the legendary former prime minister has also been credited by the international media for shaping the island's post-Independence politics and cultural life. In a timely reminder of his meticulous lifestyle, he also died on May 28, 2019, after a brief illness in a Miami hospital.
Smith was a relatively unknown public figure in 1978 when he first met Seaga. He was the head of the Jaycees of Jamaica and was preparing for the election of president of the West Indies Jaycees when he attracted Seaga's attention.
He had made an impassioned speech at a Jaycees function, criticising the then Opposition JLP senators for walking out of the Senate, instead of staying inside and standing up to the Government.
“I harshly criticised them for abdicating their responsibility to the country, recalling that the country at the time was really in some form of political turmoil. Seaga, whom I had never met previously, sent for me after listening to the speech,” he said.
They met at public relations expert Gerry Grindley's office and Smith said, much to his surprise, Seaga took the time to not only outline the strategy behind walking out, but also discussed his vision for the party and what structures were being put in place.
Smith said that they spoke for between four and five hours. Weeks later, he was elected as the president of the West Indies Jaycees.
“I was impressed with him. I believe he was also impressed with me, so I invited him to become the guest speaker at the Jaycees conference here in 1980. He accepted the invitation and gave an excellent speech. Whereas I thought that was the end of it, sometime shortly after the election, he called me an offered me a Senate position,” Smith said.
The new WI Jaycees president, however, could not become a senator while he was the president of the non-political Jaycees. But, Seaga left the Senate seat vacant for him until mid-1981 when he could take it up.
He also got support from his boss, then head of the GraceKennedy Group, Carlton Alexander, who agreed that he could continue in his job at a GK subsidiary, Rapid Sheffield, while serving in the Senate.
Smith was eventually elevated to MP for West Central Kingston after the People's National Party (PNP) refused to contest the 1983 General Election. The seat was previously a PNP stronghold represented by former Kingston Mayor Ralph Brown.
However, Smith switched to North Western St Andrew, which he won in 1993 and retained until his retirement 35 years later. That seat is now held by the Minister of Finance and the Public Service Dr Nigel Clarke.
However, there is one experience that he has stuck in his rear view mirror since: That was on election day, 1993 when he and Seaga were rescued from the Maverley Primary School in his constituency when they were confronted by a team of hostile PNP supporters and police officers.
He said that hundreds of PNP supporters swarmed the gate to the polling cluster and were confronted by JLP supporters who felt that an attempt was being made to steal some ballot boxes. The PNP supporters claimed that Seaga and Smith were also behind a JLP attempt to steal boxes, as well.
“It was so chaotic and dangerous,” Smith said, noting that in the midst of the crisis, one senior police officer was insisting on disarm Seaga's bodyguards who were being confronted by a noisy and aggressive crowd of opponents.
“Seemingly they had no intention of restoring order, but with the clear intent to create mayhem at the polling station when they tried to disarm Mr Seaga's bodyguards,” he noted.
“It was my view that in that moment in time, we were on the verge of a national crisis, because had they disarmed Mr Seaga's bodyguard, anything could have happened at that location. We were locked in for hours,” he noted.
He said that it was obvious that Seaga was also concerned about the development and actually looked frightened, as even the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) soldiers were unable to bring order to the situation.
Smith said that despite several attempts to contact then Commissioner of Police Roy Thompson, he failed to respond to their calls. It was left to former Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller, who was then a PNP Cabinet minister, to find her way to the polling station. After several hours she arrived in a helicopter with a contingent of JDF soldiers who managed to bring order to the situation.
“It was a frightening situation. A superintendent of police actually led that charge. But, order was eventually restored and we were able to leave the premise,” said Smith who went on to defeat the PNP's Dr Jephthah Ford on that and two other occasions in general elections.