THE passing of Sir Geoffrey Johnstone is a time of great sadness for his family, former colleagues in the legal world and his wide circle of friends. His loss is also of considerable significance in the history of The Bahamas because of the important role he played in the public and political life of the nation.
We have fond memories of shared school days so many years ago and have always admired his myriad achievements during an adult life dedicated not only to his profession as an accomplished lawyer but also to the service of his country.
Tributes have been pouring in for someone who was respected and loved in equal measure by so many – a person who was at ease with kings and paupers alike. At both the personal and professional level, he was universally regarded as a true gentleman of sterling character with a charismatic personality and exceptional all-round ability. His combination of wit and charm and an urbane exterior also masked an inner steel which accounted for his success in so many fields.
Sir Geoffrey’s strong contribution to the legal profession as senior partner of Higgs & Johnson for many years, together with his period as president of the Bahamas Bar Association, has been widely recognised. Held in high regard by his peers for his professional ability and integrity, he enjoyed years of success as a dedicated and distinguished lawyer.
Against this background of accomplishment, his involvement in public life should be seen as all the more meritorious. Successfully applying his skills and attributes to politics, he soon flourished in this new field and became leader of the United Bahamian Party in 1970. This was a time of political upheaval in The Bahamas arising from a split in the ruling Progressive Liberal Party and the decline of the UBP after its crushing defeat in the 1968 election which resulted in the emergence of the Free National Movement as a new party.
We can think of no better testament to the hugely significant role played by Sir Geoffrey during this period than the accolades, published in this newspaper on Tuesday and which we heartily endorse, from former Governor General Sir Arthur Foulkes and former Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham, both of whom are in a better position than anyone else to know the value of his contribution to public life.
Both described him in glowing terms and paid tribute to his exceptional service to his country, as they recognised the importance of his role in disbanding the UBP and helping to create the new FNM which absorbed the remnants of his party and became the official opposition in a two-party state. Sir Arthur described him as “a great Bahamian who gave brilliant service to his country”, and Mr Ingraham hailed him as “a giant of a man”.
So many years later, it may be hard fully to understand the circumstances of the time and appreciate the significance of the decision in the early 1970s by Sir Geoffrey and his parliamentary colleagues to accept that support for the UBP was beginning to slump after the momentous election of 1967 which led to its failure at the polls a year later. They came to realise that there was a need for change and that the time had come to recognise the tide of history and the onset – demanded by heightened political and social consciousness – of majority rule.
If the remnants of the UBP had sought to hang on to power, the situation could have turned ugly. But, presciently and wisely, those concerned read the runes correctly and potential conflict and violence were avoided. In Mr Ingraham’s words, Sir Geoffrey himself ‘gave up more political capital than anyone else to create the FNM... and, in doing so, presided over the dissolution of his party’. He later stuck to his guns and became a longstanding and loyal member of the FNM and continued his public service by becoming deputy to the Governor General, chairman of the Hotel Corporation and non-resident ambassador to Chile, Argentina and Uruguay.
We salute Sir Geoffrey Johnstone’s patriotism and selfless and dedicated contribution to the development of our young nation. While we mourn him, we should also celebrate his long, productive and exemplary life. He was a person of varied talents and qualities – truly a ‘man for all seasons’ who was loved and appreciated by so many and will now be missed by people from all walks of life.
We offer deepest condolences to his dear wife, Lady Anne, and to his extended family. May his soul rest in eternal peace.