Dr Farrell: Muddy Silk—why flawed process harms deserving recipients and even T&T society

“[…] The late Basdeo Panday told us that ‘politics has a morality of its own’. That characterisation is certainly true of the practice of politics, well-known for back-stabbing, lying, and hypocrisy, here and indeed everywhere.

“[…] But surely there are some areas of national life which should remain uninfected, if not pristine. Our national awards and the award of silk should be such.

“They are intended to identify the best of who we are and who we can be, persons whom we can all admire and who our youth can aspire to be like. And that means that the process to identify and honour such persons should conform to accepted standards of morality and fairness, not the warped ‘morality’ of partisan politics…”

President Christine Kangaloo (front row, second from right) conferred silk on selected attorneys on 17 June 2024, on the advice of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley.
Photo: Office of the President

The following Letter to the Editor on the ongoing controversy in Trinidad and Tobago’s awarding of senior counsel was submitted to Wired868 by Dr Terrence W Farrell, a renowned economist, author and attorney-at-law:

Predictably in this bacchanal country with its toxic political culture, the award of silk (Senior Counsel) has once again erupted into controversy.

I had written before on the award of silk. First, when under the UNC-PP regime, the then prime minister awarded silk to herself and to her attorney-general, who himself was supposed to advise on the awards and do so objectively.

Opposition leader and former prime minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar received silk while the UNC was in power.
Photo: Office of the Parliament 2024

The self-conferral by the prime minister was unprecedented. The conferral on a sitting AG was not, having been done before under the PNM.

Whether deserved or not, it is a conflict of interest and morally corrupt to grant oneself an honour or national award! I suggested they wear sackcloth, not silk!

In a later commentary, I fully supported and urged the adoption of the 2015 LATT Silk Report which recommended reform of the award by, inter alia, removing it from prime ministerial involvement altogether.

Ironically, the then President of the LATT Council who guided the deliberations within LATT was Reginald Armour, our current AG. His being in government has clearly made not a whit of difference to the political patronage and bias which infects the current process.

Attorney general Reginald Armour SC.
Photo: Office of Parliament 2023

Last year’s awards brought some drama including Israel Khan’s lawsuit which, as I understand it, charges that the process is unconstitutional. Those awards were distinguished by the award to two of the President’s relatives and some notable omissions.

There was also the unquestionably cynical award to a well-known member of the UNC—cynical precisely because, whether it was deserved or not, given the inherent political bias in the process, it would serve to help sustain a claim of impartiality, a claim duly and predictably advanced by the prime minister in defending the recent awards.

This year’s awards have brought fresh controversy in that allegedly, at least one name seems to have been ‘scratched off’ and another inserted somewhere between the Judiciary and the Office of the Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) and Minister of Energy and Energy Industries and Minister in the Office of the Prime Minister Stuart Young.
Young received silk in 2024.

The LATT and its president have been drawn into the bacchanal since the LATT made recommendations on the list sent to it by the AG, which recommendations were informed by the views of unnamed senior counsel.

LATT’s president has been accused of ‘bad faith’ in involving herself in a process which the LATT had rightly condemned. LATT had gone so far as to say that if the process remained unreformed, the award should be abolished!

The late Basdeo Panday told us that ‘politics has a morality of its own’. That characterisation is certainly true of the practice of politics, well-known for back-stabbing, lying, and hypocrisy, here and indeed everywhere.

Late former prime minister Basdeo Panday.

In some places, people get poisoned or their planes blown up! But surely there are some areas of national life which should remain uninfected, if not pristine. Our national awards and the award of silk should be such.

They are intended to identify the best of who we are and who we can be, persons whom we can all admire and who our youth can aspire to be like. And that means that the process to identify and honour such persons should conform to accepted standards of morality and fairness, not the warped ‘morality’ of partisan politics.

Since our politicians seem unable to lift themselves out of the mud pit of partisan politics or rise above it when duty calls, then they should not be part of the process at all.

Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley (right) and Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
(via Newsday)

The persons who are hurt most in all of this are those who are genuinely deserving of the award but whose silken robes are muddied by an unfair, politicized process, which no amount of full-page congratulatory ads can fix. There will always be doubt about their deservingness.

Were the attorneys who applied for and accepted silk right to participate in a process which their association had condemned? The large number of applicants suggests that they are prepared to participate even if they have concerns.

Was LATT’s president right to participate in a flawed process? This was a difficult decision.

LATT president Lynette Seebaran-Suite.

Participating gave some legitimacy to a process the LATT has already condemned. However, not participating might mean that deserving names would not be put forward and/or warnings would not be issued in respect of names which should not be there—for example, attorneys with unresolved disciplinary matters or those with chequered careers.

Given that its members had in fact applied, the LATT arguably had a duty to share its views on the applicants. However, LATT’s president would, of course, be unable to say which attorneys were recommended because those who did receive silk but were not favorably recommended by LATT would have their noses out of joint!

Neither could the Judiciary make its recommendations or reservations known for the same reason. The LATT president and her Council took a pragmatic decision which presumably sought to balance those considerations.

Attorney Justin Phelps was among the attorneys honoured with silk on 17 June 2024.
Photo: Office of the President

To avoid giving legitimacy to the current unfair process, LATT and indeed all right-thinking citizens must continue to demand that the award of silk and, for that matter, all national awards be removed from the purview of the prime minister and extracted from the mud pit that is Trinidad and Tobago politics.

I should also point out that those who demand ‘full transparency’ in selections for silk or national awards will remain disappointed even in an appropriately reformed process.

There are some circumstances where ‘full transparency’ could result in embarrassment to some applicants and it is better that the deliberations of any independent committee be and remain confidential, at least for some period of time.

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One comment

  1. Dr.Farrell you labour under certain constraints when commenting on national issues because of the esteem accorded you by the intelligent among us.In my humble opinion T+T politics is a cesspit,not a mud pit and I can add throat cutting to the practices of our politicians.Blessings

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