The Malta Independent 16 October 2019, Wednesday

The Malta Independent Online

Malta Independent Friday, 1 December 2006, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

Twenty years ago yesterday, a Nationalist mass meeting at Tal-Barrani was forcefully broken up by a violent mob. RAPHAEL VASSALLO revisits the unrest of the 1980s, which continues to cast its long shadow over the present

On 30 November 1986, an estimated 30,000 Nationalist supporters gathered on the Tal-Barrani road to march towards Zejtun, where Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami was due to address a mass meeting.

In itself, this might not sound like much to write home about. But Malta was a different country 20 years ago: tensions had been running high ever since the 1981 election, which had yielded a parliamentary majority for the Malta Labour Party in spite of a minority of votes. The intervening five years were characterised by a number of deeply divisive controversies, including: a Nationalist boycott of Parliament; a state-media ban on the Opposition leader’s name; any number of violent incidents, often as not involving bombs and bomb scares; and a spate of large-scale protests against the government’s plan to nationalise private schools – an issue which once again drew the Church into an informal “alliance” with the opposition party.

More to the point, Zejtun in 1986 was one of a number of localities declared “off-limits” for PN gatherings: a ban which had been revoked by the Constitutional Court only the day before the incident. The proposed meeting in 1986 was therefore a much-publicised and anticipated event, with repercussions that would greatly influence the course of the ongoing political crisis.

At around 3.30pm, the crowd reached the junction with 25 November Avenue, only to find that the road to Zejtun had been blocked by stones and burning tyres. It was at this point that a group of people, some wearing balaclavas, began hurling stones and bottles at the approaching crowd. But the trouble really began with the appearance of the police’s Special Mobile Unit, which fired teargas canisters and rubber bullets into the crowd.

In the ensuing chaos, people dispersed in all directions. One eyewitness who spoke to me about the incident claimed that he heard “repeated gunfire” throughout: a claim which would also be made by Eddie Fenech Adami in Parliament later that week. In the same speech, Dr Fenech Adami also quoted from the transcript of communications between the pilot of a police helicopter, allegedly directing the mayhem from above, and “someone” on the ground.

In the end, 23 people, including women and elderly citizens, were reported injured. Many of them had to be treated at an improvised emergency clinic at the PN headquarters in Pieta’. But these were not the only casualties of the incident.

Twenty years later, the excesses of the 1970s and 1980s remain the subject of much controversy and division. On the Labour side, some still argue that the choice of Zejtun constituted deliberate provocation on the part of the PN. For their part, those Nationalists who cite Tal-Barrani as a pivotal battle in the so-called “fight for freedom”, tend to overlook the undeniable fact that many PN supporters turned up for the meeting carrying weapons, including guns. In fact, of the four people treated for bullet wounds after the event, the most seriously injured happened to be a known Labour sympathiser.

In many respects, the Tal-Barrani incident underscores the fact that, while the causes of this once visceral divide may since have disappeared, some of the symptoms are still visible to this day.

* * *

Years of turmoil

The road to Tal-Barrani was paved with political tension, with causes that can be traced as far back as the dramatic (and traumatic) pre-Independence controversies of the 1960s.

1961: The Independence election campaign results in open confrontation between the MLP and the Church, culminating in the excommunication of Opposition leader Dom Mintoff and the party executive on 1 April. This chapter of history is still remembered with bitterness by Labour supporters, who were threatened with eternal hellfire for voting MLP or reading Il-Helsien. It has also resulted in the widespread perception of an unspoken political alliance between Church and PN.

1971: Mintoff comes to power and initiates a number of controversial reforms, including the introduction of civil marriages, the establishment of the Republic of Malta, and a Nasser-inspired nationalisation programme of many of the country’s private assets. This latter initiative would set the Labour government on a direct collision course with Malta’s professional classes.

1976: After a second electoral defeat, PN leader Gorg Borg Olivier is replaced at the helm by Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, whose leadership style would be altogether less conciliatory than that of his predecessor.

1979: The already tense climate is exacerbated by a number of violent incidents, including the gutting of The Times’ offices in Valletta and an attack on Dr Fenech Adami’s residence in Birkirkara, among others. Meanwhile, a partial strike ordered by the Medical Association of Malta, and the government’s irascible response, precipitate a crisis in the country which would claim the life of 13-year-old Karin Grech, killed by a letter-bomb addressed to her father, a future Labour MP.

1980: In July, the PN activist Nardu Debono is arrested in connection with a bomb placed outside the Police Commissioner Lawrence Pullicino’s residence; his lifeless body is discovered two days later in a valley in Qormi. The official version was that Debono had escaped from custody. Eight years later, Pullicino would be tried and convicted of causing his death during the interrogation at the Floriana Police Depot.

1981: Tensions reach new heights after the inconclusive December election, in which the MLP retained government despite polling a minority of votes. The opposition’s response is to formally boycott Parliament, and initiate a five-year electoral campaign involving regular mass-meetings all over Malta and Gozo.

1982: The government of Malta signs an agreement of military cooperation with North Korea, which would result in the provision of training and equipment of the police’s “Special Mobile Unit.”

1984: Newly appointed Prime Minister Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici extends Mintoff’s nationalisation drive also to the education sector, bringing the MLP into open confrontation with the Church for a second time.

1986: Acting Police Commissioner Anthony Mifsud Tommasi issues a ban on PN mass meetings in Zejtun, Paola and Cottonera, ostensibly “to avoid serious incidents involving injuries”. The ban is overturned by the Constitutional Court on 29 November, with Mr Justice Borg Constanzi ruling that “if there was any fear that some people were threatening these rights and liberties… it was the duty of the responsible authorities to ensure public order.”

* * *

A tale of two histories

Sir Isaac Newton once claimed that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Much the same can be said for political evaluations of recent Maltese history.

Although the political unrest of the Mintoff/Mifsud Bonnici era is still well within living memory, there seems to be a certain reluctance to discuss the issue in any non-partisan context. One of the reasons is arguably that the main actors involved in the drama – the PN and MLP – are still the country’s main political driving forces today.

The effects of this are twofold: on the one hand, each of the two has a vested interest in perpetuating its own version of the events of 20 years ago. In fact, most of the studies to date have been written either by politicians who were somehow involved in the events (e.g., The Untruth Game by Francis Zammit Dimech), or by journalists who are today directly employed by one of the political parties concerned (e.g., Liberta’ Mhedda by Dione Borg). While the results are often praiseworthy in themselves, the presumed bias of the authors nonetheless impinges on public perception of the finished product.

The other effect is that both sides tend to invoke our recent past exclusively for their own political gain. Consequently, events such as the Tal-Barrani incident of 1986, the subsequent fatal shooting of Raymond Caruana and the frame-up of Pietru Pawl Busuttil (among others), tend to be regularly resuscitated whenever a general election draws near, only to be promptly forgotten afterwards.

Admittedly there have been altogether less politically motivated explorations of these incidents: including, among others, Prof. Joseph Pirotta’s L-Istorja Kostituzzjonali u l-Isfond Storiku 1942-2004. But recent events show that the issue of representation of the Mintoff era continues to sow division to this day.

One such incident involved the PBS editorial board’s recent decision to discontinue a series of historical documentaries entitled L-Istorja Minn Wara L-Kwinti. Much like the unrest of the 1980s, two versions of this debacle exist: the producers, Prof. Henry Frendo and Dr Mark Fenech, claim that the ban was the result of political bias on the part of the PBS board. Prof. Frendo was particularly incensed, describing the decision as a “national disgrace”.

“These were programmes for national television not for a party TV station, mainly to help people young and old know themselves through their past,” Prof. Frendo explains, adding that audience feedback, “from all walks of life, and right across the political spectrum, was and continues to be enormously encouraging.”

For its part, the PBS editorial board cited technical shortcomings, as well as a lack of objectivity, as the reason to pull the plug.

Either way, the exchange between board and producers is uniquely revealing about how political issues are handled by the national station. Sylvana Cristina, PBS programming manager, observed that: “The suggested subjects are very controversial”... even though the series was limited to the early 1970s: in other words, well before political violence reached its nadir in the 1980s.

Early reactions from the PBS editorial board also reveal the national station’s concern that the programme might “overstep” the agreed subject area: “the programme should not go beyond some point in the 1970s such as the Republic, even though originally the producers wanted to keep on going until recent times.”

The Board’s critical comments suggest that the decision to limit the programme to the early 1970s – i.e.,– was taken, not by the producers, but by PBS itself: “There aren’t too many historical episodes between 1958 and 1974, which makes one suspect that it is the intention to go beyond the period threshold originally suggested by PBS.”

Whatever its reasons, it is difficult to resist the notion that as far as the national station is concerned, recent political controversies are best left for future generations to debate.

* * *

A question of age and allegiance

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the divisiveness of the 1980s is itself the subject of academic polarisation.

Among those who question the premise that Malta is reluctant to confront its recent history is Professor Dominic Fenech, Head of the Department of History at the University of Malta, and also a member of the PBS editorial board.

“There are a number of columnists who never tire of pointing out the iniquities of Labour governments, to the point of assuming that this is universally accepted,” Prof. Fenech points out.

“I don’t wish to go down that path, as I find this demonisation process of the MLP immature and tiresome. What there is, is a reluctance to take what happened before 1971, and since 1987, into the equation: a refusal to admit that all sides have been a bit rough when they held sway.”

Prof. Fenech argues that Malta has not experienced the same scale of violence and unrest that other former British colonies went through before and after Independence. As things stand, we went through two particularly stormy and divisive periods since World War II: “The first was the 1960s, which were devastating from the point of view of Labour and its supporters - the felt helplessness by anybody who did not have the protection of a Nationalist connection, coupled with threats of damnation, not to mention the many thousands forced to emigrate in order to survive.

The second was the 1970s and first half of the 1980s, where Nationalists felt the pinch of the powerful state and experienced sensations and frustrations not dissimilar to those experienced by Labour supporters in the 1960s, while those given to abuse tended to justify their actions by what had gone before.”

According to Prof. Fenech, today’s perceived polarisation depends primarily on two factors: political allegiance, and age: “If you’re under 50 and Nationalist, you would think that political strife began in 1971. And if you’re over 50 and Labour, you feel that nothing can compensate for the terrors of the 1960s. Each side is convinced of its righteousness.”

Prof. Fenech also rebuts the widespread version of events that the violence of the 1980s was laid to rest only by a Nationalist victory at the polls.

“After 1987, the Nationalists put it out that all wrongs were now righted, that political discrimination had come to an end, that all public goods and favours were distributed fairly, and that corruption had ceased to exist. Such nonsense.

We’re not out of that wood yet; we’re still Third World in that sense, and it may get worse before it starts to get better.

Ask yourself, therefore, whether we should be dwelling on events that happened 20 years ago when those who were then at the receiving end have been lords and masters with a vengeance practically ever since.”

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