How a fire inspired PJ to keep safer records

How a fire inspired PJ to keep safer records


Sunday, January 27, 2019

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The burning of crucial material used in the daily lives of Cabinet ministers forced former Prime Minister PJ Patterson to wake up to the importance of handling sensitive information in a more responsible way.

After Patterson’s People’s National Party lost the 1980 General Election to the Jamaica Labour Party, material used by former policymakers, including prime minister up to that time, Michael Manley, were torched in error after they were mistaken for junk at the PNP’s headquarters in St Andrew.

So when Patterson decided to pen his memoirs, called My Political Journey, the period of his political life from the 1970s — when he served in Manley’s Cabinet — had to be injected into the book based solely on memory of what transpired during that time.

“For the first two periods that I was a minister of government (1972-76 and 1976-1980), the practice was that when elections were called your secretary and personal staff would pack up all your documents, including Cabinet papers, and have them packaged. If you won you would go back, if you lost they would be sent to you,” said Patterson in an interview with the Jamaica Observer last week.

“When we lost in 1980 the documents were sent to me, as they would have been sent to Michael Manley and all the other members of the Cabinet. At that time the leader of the Opposition had no office, so essentially Manley operated from PNP headquarters and he decided that he was going to give all his papers to the party to build archives, and persuaded me to do likewise — and so I did.

“So all the papers that I had packed up, I sent to headquarters house. The intention was that one of the members of staff, Olga Hammond, who unfortunately just died within the last few weeks, was to do the archive work. But we were short of staff and she was fully engaged by the then General Secretary Paul Robertson, and was never able to get around to doing it.

“When Hurricane Gilbert came it lifted the roof, somebody went in, saw this room full of cardboard boxes and papers, didn’t know what it was, regarded it as junk, tossed it out and made a bonfire of all of it,” was how Patterson, who also served as a senator during the late 1960s, related the episode.

It was that situation which forced him to think and act differently henceforth.

“After that experience, on becoming prime minister [was] I not going to run that risk, so those documents which I have now given to the university were preserved. Therefore, anything up to 1980 I am relying primarily on memory. I saw the need at that point to preserve future documents.”

Now, the retired prime minister and former Member of Parliament for Westmoreland South East and Westmoreland Eastern will turn over to the University of The West Indies all the material collected for his book, which has been selling faster than phone cards.

“The material is much more expansive than what appears in the book. Scholars can delve into it and produce theses and other books from that material,” he suggested.

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