The Gibraltar Parliament yesterday approved legislation to regulate the presence of the UK Armed Forces in Gibraltar, in a move described as a seminal moment in the emancipation of the Gibraltarian community.
Gibraltar has been a key military staging post for Britain for centuries and, in the words of Chief Minister Fabian Picardo in Parliament yesterday, the military “ruled the roost”, often to the detriment of Gibraltarians.
While the Rock remains a key strategic asset, the UK’s military presence has shrunk over time as the role of Gibraltar’s civilian administration grew in parallel.
“And now, in a final step in this important process of this fortress passing from military to civilian control, the regulation of the British Armed Forces that had previously ruled the roost in this place will arise from legislation passed in a Parliament elected by direct universal suffrage of the people of Gibraltar,” Mr Picardo said.
The legislation approved yesterday gives effect in Gibraltar to certain provisions of the UK Armed Forces Act, which applies to service personnel and civilian employees.
It does so while respecting the Gibraltar Constitution and the primacy of the Royal Gibraltar Police as the lead law enforcement agency throughout Gibraltar.
In presenting the Bill to Parliament, the Chief Minister said Gibraltar’s relationship with the UK was now one of “partnership and complicity in pursuit of British foreign policy goals”.
But he was clear about the deeper significance of the legislation, which he said was the product not just of his administration but the work of all past Chief Ministers and ministers.
“It is the effect of the work of every Gibraltarian who has worked to mature our nation as we, the civilians who flocked to the rock in the aftermath of the British liberation, now assert by our law what the rights of the British Armed Forces are on this our Rock,” Mr Picardo said.
“That is the normal balance in any modern, constitutional, democratic monarchy.”
The need for this legislation was brought into sharp relief by the 2017 runway incident, during which the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Gibraltar Police became locked in a stand-off over jurisdiction in a criminal investigation involving a serving member of the Royal Air Force posted to the Rock.
The MoD said at the time that the case was a military investigation under UK jurisdiction but the RGP, which was legally obliged to establish whether any offence had been committed here, insisted it had primacy.
The row escalated after military officials tried to fly the serviceman to the UK and prevented local officers from executing a warrant signed by the Chief Justice of Gibraltar.
The RGP blocked the runway to prevent the man being flown to the UK, seizing equipment and arresting three senior UK military officials in Gibraltar on suspicion of hindering a criminal investigation.
The incident was ultimately defused and the man has since been convicted in the UK, but it highlighted a “jurisdictional gap” in Gibraltar law. That gap has now been addressed by the new legislation.
Yesterday Mr Picardo praised the UK Armed Forces as “our armed forces” and said Gibraltar continued to enjoy a strong relationship with the military.
“The support of our armed forces, British Armed Forces, is one of the key features of our unique and enduring relationship with the United Kingdom,” the Chief Minister told Parliament.
“It is one of the key features of our role as one of the British family of nations.”
“And, indeed, it is the key strategic feature that makes this Rock of ours such a geopolitically relevant asset to the United Kingdom and so desirable to others.”
The legislation received the support of the Opposition.
Elliott Phillips, the Leader of the Opposition, welcomed the move to “regularise and modernise” Gibraltar’s relationship with the British Armed Forces and said it would hopefully make situations like the one that unfolded on the runway “a thing of the past”.
He welcomed too the underlying significance of the legislation and the removal of “the last colonial vestiges” from this community.
The legislation applies to members of the UK Armed Forces and civilians with a close family of employment link to the military.
There are ongoing technical discussions between Gibraltar and the UK as to how the legislation will apply to members of the Gibraltar Regiment, who will not be covered by the law until those negotiations conclude.
The legislation does not apply to ordinary civilians or civilian property. It also states explicitly that the law does not affect any rights conferred by the Gibraltar Constitution.
The new legislation also sets out the cases where the RGP and the military police can each exercise jurisdiction.
A protocol has also been agreed between the Commissioner of Police and the Commander British Forces setting out a practical framework for when and how “jurisdiction, power and competence” can be exercised by each organisation, be it exclusively or in tandem.
As a general rule, the service police will not exercise any power of entry, search or seizure outside MoD premises in Gibraltar.
The protocol establishes that outside MoD premises, the service police shall be employed subject to such arrangements agreed with the RGP and only in limited, defined circumstances.
“The Protocol is intended to support the practical application of the Act by providing a guide to the coordination of approach to policing in Gibraltar between the RGP and the service police,” Mr Picardo said.
“Both forces have shown their commitment to establish close and regular support, consultation and co-operation which they have recognised as being crucially important and essential in order to promote a clear and effective working relationship between them to achieve their common purpose of upholding law and order in Gibraltar.”