Dennis Reyes: Widely respected Clerk of the House of Assembly
By 19 November, 2007 07:05 This article has been read 6965 times.
The death last week of the self-effacing and friendly former Clerk of the House Dennis Reyes ended one of the remaining links between the old and new constitutional Gibraltar. His passing, after a short but serious illness, drew belated plaudits for his work and integrity from major politicians and he took with him to the grave a string of political secrets about which he remained consistently silent throughout his lifetime - although, as he admitted to VOX in an interview last year - there had been times when he was "sorely tempted to at least bend the Official Secrets Act."
As personal secretary to two successive Deputy Governors and for ten years until his retirement ten years as Clerk to the House of Assembly, Reyes - who retired in September last year after a distinguished Civil Service career - had been party to some of the most memorable moments in Gibraltar's recent history.
In his early years at the head of the Assembly's small staff Reyes was, perforce, a reluctant eavesdropper on the plans and strategies of Joe Bossano's Opposition party which at that stage had no offices of its own and often held its caucus meetings in the larger of the Assembly's two offices.
"I heard a lot, but said nothing," Reyes told VOX.
OPENING OF THE FRONTIER
It was a reticence that he had learned earlier when as secretary to Foreign Office appointees Dick Neilson and John Broadley as successive deputy governors - Reyes became subject to the Official Secrets Act for he was party to many of the triangular discussions leading to the opening of the frontier...
"But, as on other occasions, I was a little pawn...very much in the know, but I couldn't talk about what I knew," he said of this period in a Civil Service career that spanned more than three decades.
And though Reyes had a reputation for outspokenness that did not always endear him to colleagues in the Rock's bureaucracy or to some of our politicians whom he helped over procedural hurdles in the House of Assembly, some of that ingrained reserve remained. For, above all Reyes was the epitome of tact.
Greying-haired and soft-spoken, he was an unlikely candidate for the wrath of any Chief Minister so his widely publicised contretemps with Peter Caruana in the House of Assembly two years ago surprised everyone - including Reyes himself.
"It was a moment of stupidity on my part...and a moment I would prefer to forget," he admits. "But it had been a bad day in the House...the Speaker had had a bad day...in fact it was a bad day for everyone."
It was rumoured that the rift with Caruana was never completely healed, nevertheless the Chief Minister on Monday expressed the Govcernment's deep sadness at the former Clerk's death.
"Mr Reyes discharged his responsibilities as Clerk of the House with a seriousness but friendliness which was very much welcomed by all members of the House," Caruana said in a statement from No 6. "His conduct of general elections, and of Gibraltar's two recent referendums were a tribute to his skill and professionalism in these matters."
Expressing the PDP's condolences to his widow, Marie Carmen and Dennis's family, the party's leader Keith Azopardi who served in the House when Reyes was Clerk said:
"Dennis was always helpful and courteous when conducting his official duties and was a great assistance to the members of the House across the political spectrum. He gave many years of public service to Gibraltar and was in effective charge of arrangements for two referenda at critical points of our recent history. He was always a pleasure to work with and will be greatly missed."
Echoing the condolences and regrets the official Opposition lauded Reyes's contribution to the House.
"He was very committed to the job of Clerk, and this was in reality a job that seemed to be made for him. Although he may have spoken in mind on a number of occasions, this was a positive trait of his character.
"The Clerk of the House is there to serve all of its Members. However, the reality is that because the Government have the entire machinery of the civil service behind them, the Clerk in effect provides backup to the Opposition Members who have nowhere else to go. Mr Reyes was very helpful and very friendly in his role."
A MAN OF THE PEOPLE
When he spoke to VOX last year Reyes confessed affection and considerable respect for Sir Joshua Hassan. "Sir Joshua was not only a very astute politician, he was also very much a man of the people, in the best possible sense," Reyes said. "He had a marvelous capacity of remembering people's personal details - the sort of man who would walk down Main Street and stop to talk to a street cleaner, asking him how his wife was. ‘I've heard she wasn't too well recently,' he would say. Or he would stop and chat to a grandmother and congratulate her on the birth of her latest grandchild."
Sir Joshua, as the then Chief Minister, played a significant part in the discussion surrounding the opening of the frontier and Reyes reckons that throughout the highly secret negotiations both Sir Joshua and the Spanish brought with them a sense of urgency.
"After 18 years that the border had been closed Gibraltar seemed to be stagnant and Sir Joshua was determined to bring about a revival - for one must remember that opening the frontier benefited Gibraltar as much as it helped Spain. Franco's era was on its way out - though not yet completely eclipsed - and at local government level, in the Campo, there was a similar sense of urgency," he recalled. "The eagerness of all three parties was almost tangible."
Though Reyes did not regard it as a drawback, or go so far as to describe his approach as ‘autocratic' he stressed Sir Joshua's reputation as "the Octopus".
"He enjoyed having a finger in every pie," Reyes recalled. But then the same can be said of Sir Joshua's successors - Sir Robert (Bob) Peliza, the present Opposition leader Joe Bossano and Peter Caruana.
"They all come in proclaiming their policy of giving free rein to their ministers to take decision...but it doesn't last for long. Pretty soon everything comes back to decisions at, and by, No 6."
Reyes cut his Civil Service teeth in the Tax Office, where he started his career in May 1965, and later moved from there to become Civil Service Training Officer - a post he filled with distinction for five years. In this role he was not only responsible for all the induction courses for newcomers to the Civil Service, but held and organized training sessions across the board within the service to mid-management level. He mourned the disappearance of this post - which he regarded as important to inculcating the sort of dedication we expect, but don't always get, from Government employees.
RETURN TO TAX OFFICE
As well as his spell in the Deputy Governor's office and a return to the Tax Office, Reyes finally moved to the Financial & Development Secretary's staff where he expected to spend the rest of his career.
Instead, when a vacancy as Clerk of the House occurred 12 years ago, Reyes applied for the job. It also cast him in the role of returning officer for several elections - the first in the by-election of 1999 - and he was also referendum Administrator in the watershed referendum of 2002 as well as handling the European Parliamentary elections - again a first for the Rock.
These "firsts" for a Gibraltarian gave Reyes a particular sense of pride, for he saw them as among the highlights of his career.
"In the 1967 referendum Britain clearly regarded us as incapable of running something like that ourselves and sent someone out from the UK to administer it," he told VOX last year. Yet he recalled, with justifiable pride, the fact that in all the elections which he had supervised only one ballot paper has ever been lost.
"That was in the 2002 referendum and when I found out, I immediately reported it to Gerald Kauffman the senior British Labour MP who had been sent out as a senior observer of the process. He was astonished that I mentioned it at all, and told me that in British elections literally hundreds of ballot papers went missing each time. "Don't bother to report it,' Kauffman advised me...but I did."
"I can't say for sure what happened to that missing ballot, though probably someone decided to keep it as a souvenir of what, after all, was to be a historic occasion - or it might have just been thoughtlessness on the part of an elderly voter who forgot to put it in the ballot box, crumpled it up and put it in his or her pocket instead. Unfortunately, we'll never know."
And his skills as a returning officer and Referendum Administrator were such that although he had officially retired, Reyes was asked to take on the cloak of authority for a final time to administer the referendum on the new constitution last November.
Computerisation both eased and speeded up the work of the House's small staff, and during Reyes' term made it possible to provide a full index of all questions - making these and the ministerial answers swiftly accessible for the first time.
"Before we produced the index one could spend hours or even days trying to track down a question and the answers to it," he recalled in retirement.