When I got back to Colombo from Uzbekistan, the Central Bank Bond issue was hotting up. Ranil had tried to suppress the report his own lawyers had produced, which made it clear that chicanery had taken place. They had I think been asked to protect Arjuna Mahendran, and this they did with a dogmatic claim regarding his innocence, which the rest of their report belied. Even devoted UNP lawyers, it seems, were not prepared to put their reputations on the line by claiming that nothing wrong had occurred.
The Opposition demanded a debate on the subject, but the Speaker, perhaps trying to maintain a balance, decided that the issue should be investigated by the Committee on Public Enterprises. D E W Gunasekara, its dedicated Chairman, was keen to start immediately, but I was due to go abroad again on May 24th and he decided to postpone sittings. Though others perhaps would disagree, he saw me as the most valuable member of the Committee, and felt I needed to be present to deal with what he realized would be obfuscation on the part of UNP members.
I make no bones about the fact that the transformation of COPE had been largely because of my initiatives. I had not asked to be put on this Committee, having asked instead for Consultative Committees in areas which I knew about. But the myopic Ministers the President had put in charge of subjects relating to Reconciliation obviously wanted no one around with significant capacity. So this was the most important Committee I was appointed to, apart from the one on Standing Orders, and that ceased to meet after a few months.
Assessing what COPE was about, I found that we were supposed to report on a couple of hundred institutions, but managed in a year to look at fewer than 50. This struck me as ridiculous, so I suggested sub-committees, which D E W Gunasekara institutionalized, against opposition I should note by Ravi Karunanayake who thought the whole committee should look at any institution (despite the evidence that this was not possible).Another innovation I brought in was the requirement that COPE write to any institution from which we had required further responses, if they did not answer our queries within a month. Previously, it seemed, any response was reported to the committee, but failure to respond was ignored, and only recorded when the institution was summoned again, generally a couple of years later. It seems this situation had not struck my predecessors on the Committee as preposterous, but D E W agreed that follow up should be institutionalized. And when we found that the COPE staff were not quite up to the task, we set up a Committee for follow up that I persuaded Mahinda Amaraweera to chair. He said initially that as a Minister he might be too busy, but I assured him I would do all the work. However he was conscientious in attending, and told me that he felt this was more productive work – he was one of those who suffered from sidelining, with the Ministry being run by the Secretary who had a hot line to the Presidential Secretariat.
D E W then insisted that we commence our investigations after I return, but we had a preliminary meeting on the 22nd, at which we decided that former Deputy Governor of the Bank, W A Wijewardena, be asked to brief the Committee on the issues. He was a man of great integrity, who had in the past been critical of the previous Governor, Nivard Cabraal, who was a strong supporter of the Rajapaksa regime. But even if it could be argued that Cabraal had been unduly political in his approach, there had been nothing like the peculation over which Arjuna Mahendran had presided.
With our agenda then fixed, to begin investigations on June 5th, the day I was due back, I left for England. I went straight to Oxford, and had a few lovely days there, including going down to the river for the rowing. I had not been in Oxford for Eights Week since I had gone down, and it was fun to watch the races again after nearly 40 years, with their strange concept of bumping to register victory over the crew immediately ahead. But this was on the Wednesday, the first day, so I missed the intensity that increased geometrically over the four day period.
I had lunch as always with my old tutor, now 95 and still living by himself in the house where I had had Christmas lunch six years running. Clive Taylor, former Deputy Representative at the British Council in Colombo, came to see me as he now generally did when I was in Oxford, and this time, it being a fine day, I took him walking through both my colleges. For what was to be the last time, we had champagne and bridge and dinner at Lady Margaret Hall, where the Principal, who was soon to retire, had hosted my 50th birthday party. And I had much time with my old Dean, for I stayed in a guest room in the retirement home he had moved to when still quite young, so he could, as he put it, start a new life for himself instead of, as was usually the case, going to such a place to prepare for death.
But I had also wanted to make use again, before it expired, of the 5 year Schengen visa the Italians had given me in 2010. So I travelled on the Thursday to Slovakia, where I had never been before. In 1971, on my way to Oxford, I had gone to the former Czechoslovakia from Frankfurt, getting a lift from students I had met in the Consulate where I had gone for my visa. But that had been only to Prague, and when I had a weekend off during the Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva and went to the Czech Republic, it was again only Prague that I visited.
I had always thought of that as being the most interesting place in the country, and so it doubtless was, but a friend assured me that Slovakia too had multiple attractions, and so it turned out. I started with a day in Bratislava, with its picturesque Main Square and several picturesque churches, and then the next day I took a train to Kosice, which had a fabulous cathedral. I also managed to get a ticket for the ballet, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, reminding me of the days I travelled through Europe on a rail pass and managed to see several operas in different cities.
The next day I went to the walled city of Levoca, with another picturesque square, and near to a wonderfully impressive castle, though visiting it required a strenuous walk uphill. After that I had a full bottle of sparkling wine with dinner on the pavement outside my hotel, though thankfully the helpful waiters allowed me to take what remained to my room.
Next day I went to the World Heritage churches in the vicinity, though I could see only one each of the Orthodox and the Catholic dispensations, given the infrequency of the bus service to the remote villages where they were. But I was able too to get to the small town of Berdyov, with another elegant square, and also to the charming church of St Martin on the way back to Levoca.
The last town I visited, the next day, was Spiska Novi Vis, where I wanted to see what was supposed to be the furthest east graffiti inscribed by a Roman soldier. It could only be seen from a particular point in the expensive hotel built against the cliff where it was, but the hotel staff were used to travelers demanding a sight of the place, and allowed one entrance. My own hotel was a very cheap one, but it had a nice view of the castle, which I also visited, lunching in a restaurant on the way down which gave splendid views of the town below.
I went back to Bratislava for my last day, and saw the well restored castle there and then went to the very impressive castle at Devin, overlooking the Danube and the Moravia river. And that evening I was able to see ‘Jenufa’ at the opera house, before a 3 am start next morning for my flight back to London.
Though I try now to avoid London, I stayed there for a day, largely to see my nephew Amal, whose mother Clara had died the previous month. I had stayed with the family when I first went to England, and I had always felt very close to Clara. Fortunately I had seen her the previous year, when I went to England after my father’s death, and we had a sort of wake at the house of a relation. Clara was in hospital but I went to see her the next day and, though clearly in great pain, she was able to summon up her usual sweet smile.
Amal had arranged a fairly intense programme for me, including a meeting with Chris Hargreaves of the Oxford Group which had wanted to do a casualty count after the war. I had strongly recommended this, but neither the Census Department, nor the Ministry of Health, which should have been their local partners for such an exercise, was willing to move on the matter.
We had lunch after that with Sir Peter Heap, who chaired the Friends of Sri Lanka group, and who seemed a bit disappointed with the way the new government was behaving. It seemed as though they were determined to ignore all those who had been true to Sri Lanka in previous years, as if they saw good relations with the last government something to resent. This view was put even more strongly by Lord Naseby, who had been one of the most loyal supporters of Sri Lanka during its long struggle to overcome terrorism.
I met Naseby in the House of Lords, and then I went to the House of Commons to have a drink on its riverside terrace with Andrew Turner, with whom I had shared a flat in Oxford nearly forty years previously. I had been lucky to find a beautiful place in Norham Gardens, above a dental practice. The rent was high for students, but we shared it between three, the hardy Bruce occupying the middle room which served also as sitting and dining room.
Initially the front room was occupied by Damian Green, who was President of the Union in the term after he had gone down. He too was in Parliament, and had been a junior Minister, though clearly he and Cameron did not get on and he no longer had ministerial office. This seemed a pity because he had been one of the brightest of our Union faction at Oxford, but with Cameron’s departure he received his due and is now Minister of Pension and Works.
Andrew had never I think been a candidate for ministerial office, holding what we all felt were excessive right wing views. But he had held on for years to his seat in the Isle of Wight, even though he had suffered a stroke. He was extremely conscientious, and a thorough gentleman, and I could understand his constituents keeping him going.
We had a lovely time reminiscing in that delightful setting, before he had to head back to the Chamber, and I went back to Amal’s for dinner and an early night before my flight back to Colombo, and the business of the Bond.
Ceylon Today 14 Feb 2017 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20170101CT20170331.php?id=15211