The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

The Dom Years

Malta Independent Sunday, 26 August 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 9 years ago

There was absolutely no call to turn the already tense situation occasioned by the death of Dom Mintoff into an orgasm of provocation, vituperation and insults.

Convention has been broken: there was no such tension when George Borg Olivier passed away just after the turmoil-filled 1976 elections, nor when Guido de Marco died.

That’s partly it: Dom was nothing like George, or like Guido. In death, as in life, Dom Mintoff was a deeply divisive personality in Maltese politics.

But a death is a death and this supreme moment in a person’s life deserves respect and silence.

The adage De mortuis nil nisi bonum (Speak no ill of the dead), which may hold for a private person, has to come to terms with analysis and memories in the case of a public person. Even so, it will only be history, and only after enough time has passed, that will give a definitive judgement on the man Dom and his leadership.

Right now, a fair assessment is impossible, not with all this very rabid controversy and impossible to reconcile assessments: is he the worst leader since Gaddafi or is he a saint?

Whatever, his death, even without the exacerbation occasioned by comments that should have been more pondered, has re-opened many wounds. The country is split many ways today, especially between those for whom Dom did nothing that was good and those who idolize him to high heaven.

The balance, as usual, must be somewhere in the middle.

All of a sudden, the country is back some 30 years, back in the middle of the 1980s. None of the intervening years seem to have changed opinions. Twenty-five years or more of a Nationalist administration have sloughed off people’s backs and we are all tribal again. Perhaps we never stopped being one. The veneer has come off.

The country urgently needs to move on, past the ferocious conflicts of the past. But what has happened this past week makes one seriously doubt if this will be so, if it will ever be so.

Where does one begin to judge the Mintoff years?

The following is only a trial balance, an admittedly imperfect assessment, in expectation of a more serene and fair assessment.

To draw up a balance of a life, just now concluded, one must look at a life as one whole, but in reality, it was nothing like that. Any person’s life is a series of eras.

There was the Dom of post-war years, the Dom of the reconstruction period (and the largely negative Catholic Herald appraisal focused on this when it stated: “It is largely Harrison and Hubbard’s and Dom’s fault that so much of what could have been saved, was not, and so much that was modern and ugly and ill-suited to Malta was built”).

Then there was the Dom who ousted Sir Paul Boffa in a party coup. On this and on Dom’s subsequent tussle with George Borg Olivier, the same thing can be said: both were gradualists, Dom was no gradualist. Dom was dead set against gradualism.

Let us concentrate mostly on the Borg Olivier years, tainted though they were by two elections won with the Church’s support. For all that has been said these days by Mintoff apologists, it is simply not true that before Dom there was nothing if not poverty and misery. This may be true of the early 1950s, before Dom’s first term as the country emerged from the post-war years.

To be specific, in the light of the hagiography of the past days, it was not Dom who gave women the right to vote, nor was it Dom who introduced free education, nor the one who introduced pensions. But it was Dom who introduced children’s allowances, on the example of Scandinavian welfare states.

It was always Dom’s strategy to downplay the achievements of the Borg Olivier years and today we can see that he largely succeeded in this distortion of history. Not the only one, too. The Borg Olivier years were the years in which Malta obtained independence, something Dom, after his Integration phase, would have liked to obtain but did not manage. They were the years in which the foundations of an independent Malta were laid – the beginning of tourism, the industrial estates, the first factories, the beginning of the State’s institutions like the Foreign Service, the Central Bank and so on.

Obviously, this was built on keeping a steady and friendly relationship with Britain and the West but for Dom the money paid to keep the British base in Malta was not enough.

Hence the almighty struggle with the British, the no-holds barred approach which led to the British moving out, then staying, then moving out altogether in 1979, to Dom’s flirtations with the Third World, and especially with Gaddafi’s Libya, the failed attempts to Arabise Malta with the teaching of Arabic and handing over icons of the recent and remote past, such as the Main Guard and the College of Teachers to the Libyans. And the green passport. And over and above all this, the attempt to turn the issue into pounds, shillings and pence when prior to that it had been a question of Malta ‘naturally’ belonging to the West.

One good thing came out of this: there is no foreign base in Malta now. Look at Cyprus, with a foreign base being sovereign and extra-territorial on their island, and, as recent press reports had it, reporting on Assad’s troop movements to the rebels via the US. Malta’s harbours are free and open to all, especially cruise liners.

To conclude this part: Mintoff reacted violently against gradualism and, in doing so he pushed the country to the limits. But gradualism was and is more suited to this country than Mintoff’s revolutionary push.

To understand Dom, one has to understand his context: the inter-years Cottonera with deprivation and poverty all around and with a dominant and rich Church and an ever-present dockyard run by the British for the needs of the British armed forces.

Then the two love-hate relationships in Dom’s life.

As a Bormliz he was never far from the collegiate church of Cospicua and the Kuncizzjoni but as he grew older he grew more anti-Church. Anti-church, not anti-Christ. In the 1950s and 1960s he battled against a mighty Church autocratically run by Archbishop Sir Michael Gonzi. The skirmishes began in the 1950s but then exploded in the early 1960s, at a time when the Catholic Church was holding its Second Vatican Council. But here in Malta it was interdicting the entire Labour leadership, declaring it a sin to read the Labour press or to vote Labour and banning Labour supporters from church-blessed funerals and weddings.

The 1962 election and to a lesser degree the 1966 one were preceded by massive mobilisation of the Church faithful, of which the Nationalist Party, cannily led by Dr Borg Olivier, obtained the best advantage with minimum effort.

Even so, Dom, while losing, kept a steel core of supporters around him. And he never turned the antagonism into a religious campaign. Lino Spiteri (a notable absentee in these rivers of memories) tells a delightful story about a Dom mass meeting in which the leader argues his fight is not with Christ but with the Archbishop (a diminutive figure much like Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor) and to prove it, he gets the audience to pray with him.

He then accepted the mediation of Archbishop Cardinale and Bishop Gerada and a peace agreement was struck. As all predicted, that led to the 1971 election victory.

Looking back with the hindsight of later years, we can see that the famous Six Points he insisted upon were more or less acceptable by a post-Vatican II Church. Looking back, the Church’s strictures – interdiction, banning Christian burial and marriages, interfering with people’s lives (with parish priests telling politicians who voted PN and who Labour) – was unpardonable.

In attacking this kind of Church, then, Dom was more than right. He also tapped a vein in public opinion, an anti-clerical vein, which had lain dormant since Lord Strickland in the 1930s. Apart from the fact that people everywhere love a man who takes on an institution.

Later on, Dom would win acceptance of his Six Points but relations with the Church still rankled. In the 1970s, Dom manipulated doddery, deaf and isolated Archbishop Gonzi into going to the Queen to plead Malta’s cause. When the archbishop appealed for clemency on behalf of those who had engaged in mayhem after the 1976 election, the clergy refused to follow their bishop and he had to go.

Dom found an opening through the Vatican and Cardinal Agostino Casaroli and helped the Vatican open up lines of contact with Gaddafi’s Libya, even though the Libyans then tricked Cardinal Pignedoli at a Tripoli conference into attacking Zionism. But friendship on this level with the Vatican provided a useful counter-weight to the anti-Dom church in Malta.

In the 1980s, Dom and his hand-picked successor, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici came in collision not just with the Church like in the 1960s but with the people who preferred to send their children to church schools rather than State ones. (There was also the conflict as regards church hospital and homes, with a lot of court cases and pressure on judges, as a result of which the loved Blue Sisters left, never to come back). But the parents and children stood firm and the government ultimately had to back down.

Dom’s relations with the British were equally troublesome. Brought up in a country ruled by colonial masters, with his father a cook at Castille where he later had his office as prime minister, there was always that Downstairs – Upstairs syndrome in Dom, just like in so many Maltese employed by the British.

Then he was chosen as a Rhodes scholar and went to Oxford. His mastery of the English language was proverbial.

When he became prime minister in 1955, he wanted Malta to join the UK and be integrated with it. This was a Maltese invention (or rather, a Dom one) and there was no template for it. The British were not too keen. In the referendum, the Church wanted guarantees that neither Dom nor the UK government could give. And those in favour of joining were less than the majority of voters. Then the British had the Suez debacle (and they were told that Malta had warned Nasser the British were about to attack) and they decided to downsize the dockyard.

So suddenly the Integration idea was off and Dom became virulently anti-British. The April 1958 daily demonstrations in Valletta became violent and on 28 April a general strike was held which ended in violence. Dom resigned.

After George Borg Olivier obtained Independence (and Dom personally led a counter-demonstration on the night in protest), Dom bided his time, portraying the Borg Olivier government as a stooge in the hands of the British.

When he came to power in June 1971, he immediately launched negotiations to make the British pay more.

This was when he turned to other countries such as Gaddafi’s Libya, in an effort to scare the British. He got the Italians under Aldo Moro to pool in and by March 1972, after a tense-filled Christmas, the agreement was signed. Malta obtained much more than it used to get under Borg Olivier, and, in the eyes of his faithful, Dom was vindicated.

Thereafter, the British armed forces, which had already wound down their operations, were on a March 1979 timeline and when they left there were many moist eyes, including those of President Anton Buttigieg, following them out of Malta in what Dom called ‘Malta’s finest hour’.

With Malta free of a military base, Dom’s relations with Britain improved greatly. However, he always retained a Third World preference. It was this ideology that led him to be the first leader from the West to visit Communist China, scandalizing everyone. But when Henry Kissinger and later Richard Nixon followed suit, his realpolitik gained acceptance and approval from people such as Willy Brandt.

When the attention turned to the CSCE process, Dom used the veto power imposed by the unanimity clause to force the US and the Soviet Union to halt proceedings and listen to his peroration of the importance of peace in the Mediterranean to the stability of Europe.

Most remember how he withstood pressure and worse from both Kissinger and Gromyko, angering them both. In the end, he obtained a clause in the final statement mentioning the Mediterranean. It was to be a Pyrrhic victory. The stalemate in the Middle East continued through wars and terror but Europe moved on regardless. Although other efforts have been made along the lines outlined by Dom, such as the EuroMed process and Sarkozy’s Union of the Mediterranean, they all had the same result. Notwithstanding Dom’s insistence on the centrality of the Mediterranean Sea for Europe and world peace, not a bad idea in itself, the Mediterranean remains split between North and South, East and West.

The full story of those Helsinki days has yet to be told (and some documents have gone missing) but, whatever others may say, they make Malta proud. Here was a diminutive man and a diminutive country standing up to the super powers of the time.

Later on, in the 1990s, it was Dom’s friendship with Gaddafi that was reportedly the reason why Helmut Kohl blocked Malta’s accession to the EEC in 1993.

Of course, to analyse Dom’s life and times, it is essential to analyse his government of the island.

His first term, we have seen, was turbulent with the Integration issue and later his ‘British Go Home’ campaign, which led to his resignation. At the same time, however, he pushed through more social services and extended education.

In his second term, from 1971 to 1984, his priorities were, as seen more abroad than here. However, he changed Borg Olivier’s gradualist and private sector-led economy, such as it was, to a centralized economy on the East European model. The minimum wage was increased time and again, social services were added, and children’s allowance was introduced. But banks suddenly collapsed. It is a complete scandal that the court issues regarding the failure of BICAL and the National Bank are still outstanding after all these years and the truth is whispered but not certified.

A climate of fear came over Malta. When, some years later, an Egyptian professor at the university, Professor Metwally, published a book analysing the economic situation of Malta. Not one printing press accepted to do the job and in the end it was the small and technologically primitive church press which did it, in a cloak and dagger atmosphere, with the mathematical equations having to be turned into zinc plates and tacked on to the letterpress type.

In 1974, the back of the Nationalist Party was broken when the majority of Opposition MPs voted with Dom to remove the monarchy and establish a republic.

That he would win the 1976 election after such a roller coaster term was a foregone conclusion but when, in the aftermath of the victory, armed bands attacked PN clubs all over Malta, the signs became clear that he had lost control. Such attacks became the order of the day. The free unions rebelled and were repressed. When a crazed man made his way into Castille and apparently shot (at the ceiling) armed bands came together again and burned the building of The Times, and an office of the church newspaper and then attacked the private house of the new Leader of the Opposition.

But Dom, for all his autocratic behaviour and shouting and slanging matches, was not, at heart, a dictator. In December 1981, his party got less votes but more seats than the Nationalists, due to a fluke in the system. The people around him, more than he himself, wanted to stay in power. The Nationalists stayed out of Parliament, then were persuaded to come back.

By 1984, Dom had had enough. Before standing down, he made a signal choice: knowing that Lorry Sant expected to succeed him, he chose Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici instead. Things went from bad to worse because of KMB’s mishandling of the church schools and Blue Sisters issues. Violence spread and became more uncontrollable and a PN supporter, Raymond Caruana was killed in a PN club. KMB foolishly banned a PN admittedly provocative meeting in Zejtun, in the heart of Dom-land, and a pitched battle ensued. Matters were coming to a head and Malta seriously risked civil war.

That was when Dom, no longer a prime minister, intervened in Eddie Fenech Adami’s finest speech (on the Budget, but not on the Budget) and offered talks out of the constitutional impasse. That broke the mould and the 1987 election saw the party that gained more votes getting more seats. By that action, Dom proved conclusively he was no dictator, although some around him were.

This Dom would never retire from public life. The Nationalists, keen for vengeance, purposely built the new power station in his own backyard.

But when, in 1996, Labour under a new leader returned to power, and Dom was re-elected as an MP, relations between him and the new leader, Alfred Sant, became more and more strained until Dom erupted over the concession of Fort St Angelo to the Knights of Malta as an extra-territorial enclave.

Like what has happened in the past months to Lawrence Gonzi’s government by his own backbenchers, Dom became the real Leader of the Opposition, naturally aided and abetted by the PN. Then, either by choice or by mistake he brought down the government and the PN regained power. Through that defeat, Malta made it to EU accession and that of the eurozone.

In his private life as well as in his public one, Dom was more an austerity man than an investment one. When he stood down, Malta did not have the public debt it has now, but then it had a third-rate telecom system, a non-functioning Freeport, and it was only at the very end that reverse osmosis plants were built to provide much-needed water. In current terms, Dom would agree more with Merkel and Schauble on the need for austerity than with Hollande on the need to invest. When oil spiked and trebled in the 1970s, Malta had darkened streets while the rest of Europe shrugged its way through well-lit nights.

Imports were tightly controlled, even colour TVs and the like, leading to many abuses. Computers were, for a long time, banned.

Many people were given what they still call ‘government plots’ mostly on land that did not belong to the government and whose owners are only now receiving paltry compensation.

National corporations were set up, like Air Malta and so on but in many cases they took the place that should have been given to the private sector. In fact, the Nationalists, when they came to power in 1987, liberalised the economy and the country enjoyed years of substantial growth. When unemployment rose, Dom’s government created one labour corps after another and KMB, in the run-up to the 1987 election, employed thousands at Marsa Shipbuilding, one of Dom’s many white elephants that could never take off. In fairness, one still cannot say the Nationalists fully reversed this trend for they have created their own pockets of employment by creating all these authorities with people employed on salary scales that one cannot find in government service.

One other area where Dom failed was his treatment of the university and students in general. An intellectual himself, it is inconceivable how he could engage in his systematic campaign that broke down the university, turned students into worker-students and made many leave Malta and go and study abroad. A special mention must be made of his treatment of doctors and the health service in general, with Maltese doctors exiling themselves from Malta to be replaced by doctors from Eastern Europe. When they came to power in 1987, the Nationalists had an easy task in re-establishing the university, and creating a new MCAST. Today, both institutions have far more students than they ever could have under Dom and his successor. Yet students today will not have noticed that the hallowed stipend they get today is perhaps a distant relative of the pay they would have got as student-workers.

And lastly, the man himself. The scenes we saw over the past days, if one removes the PL spin and the like, as well as the emotion that grips a nation when a famous figure dies, show widespread and authentic grief at his passing away.

This was his people, the people he used to love to be with, the people from Cottonera especially, the people who maybe are still in the grip of poverty but who still remember the man who provided them with housing, with a minimum wage, with a pension. These are the people, men and women, who cried and wept as his body was carried past.

Their weeping is not just a concluding statement on the Dom they still loved, despite his bringing down Alfred Sant’s government, but also a sombre thought for people in power to reflect on, especially this present government which is so bereft of it: only when people perceive a politician to be really concerned about their personal situations will they start to respect and love him.

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