The runway incident led to a serious and tense situation both on the day and its immediate aftermath. The worsening of any diplomatic row has been avoided thanks to one of the most powerful words in the English language.
Whether you agree or not with the handling of this situation the apology from the senior MoD personnel marks an important development. Above all it sets the record straight and leaves no doubt for the future on who has jurisdiction in Gibraltar.
A recent statement by the RGP, after both sides initially remained tight-lipped, said: “Investigations have revealed that the actions taken by the three military officers were due to a misconception about jurisdiction which they had received from superiors in their chain of command.”
The MoD was mistaken on its view of jurisdiction in Gibraltar and it needs to take serious note and learn from this incident. It needs to ensure all its serving personnel on the Rock fully understand this.
The RGP has primacy in any criminal investigation in Gibraltar – anywhere in Gibraltar – and the MoD is not above the law.
A spokeswoman for the MoD in Gibraltar told the Chronicle at the time that “…all involved, including the three service personnel, very much regret what happened.”
The incident could have had massive implications for Gibraltar. The unprecedented police operation to block a military aircraft from taking off could have had a very different outcome.
What’s important here is that any cracks in the Gibraltar-MoD relationship, which will likely have been weakened by this recent incident, are repaired as fast as possible. It should however not be an excuse for anyone to get away with breaking the law because the law applies equally to all.
The Commissioner of Police has, in his discretion and in close consultation with the office of the Attorney General, concluded that “no further action is required”. There will be those who feel a tougher legal stance should have been taken. However, based on what we have been told so far, I believe the right decision was taken, despite the fact that ignorance of the law is no excuse. As the Chief Minister said last week the situation has been a “complex” one and a difficult time for both the RGP and MoD.
There will have been meetings at the highest level. I understand the Governor who was away at some point during all this was forced to cut short a visit to London. We can only but imagine the exchanges, but any correspondence there may have been will make interesting reading in the next few decades when any secret papers on this are declassified.
At a local level there will have been numerous considerations, not least the prospect of Brexit repercussions looming over the Rock like the levanter cloud that will not go away.
But, we should never underestimate the power of an apology at this level.
When working in the GBC newsroom in 2009 I remember being on duty the day the Guardia Civil chased a launch into Gibraltar waters and then Spanish officers continued the chase on foot in Gibraltar. You can imagine the local uproar that rightly followed.
The Civil Guards were detained by the RGP and were later released after the then Spanish Interior Minister Alfredo Pérez Rubalcaba phoned the Chief Minister at the time, Peter Caruana, to apologise for their “incorrect actions”. Saying sorry must really have been the hardest word to say but it avoided a major diplomatic row. It was also a victory of sorts for Gibraltar because a high ranking Spanish politician had, through his actions, acknowledged jurisdiction – even though this would certainly not have been his intention. (A number of Gibraltarians were not happy at the time with the release of the officers but I doubt the Madrid central Government and many others were happy with the apology).
The circumstances are totally different but the significance of the apology similar.
If you look at broadcasters in the UK, many would rather pay a hefty fine than being forced by Ofcom (the body that regulates broadcasting in the UK) to publicise an apology. Admitting you have been wrong is not always the first choice for everyone.
It’s important to note that in the wake of the unprecedented arrest the Ministry of Defence has reaffirmed its “strong and enduring” relationship with Gibraltar.
What’s important now is that the authorities proceed with the original investigation and that both sides provide the necessary assistance to each other so that the legal process in the case follows its course with no further interruption. The MoD has said it had cooperated with the RGP investigation throughout.
This could have been about big boys flexing their muscles and arguing until relationships deteriorate to beyond repair, instead the best interests of Gibraltar seem to have emerged victorious.