The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

Accounting for 30+ years in public life

Noel Grima Tuesday, 15 January 2019, 09:07 Last update: about 2 years ago

Ugo Mifsud Bonnici ‘Konvinzjoni u Esperjenza’; Klabb Kotba Maltin 2015; 1223 pp

This is, one might say, Ugo Mifsud Bonnici's political autobiography from his beginnings as the son of Il-Gross to his first political experiences in the 1960s, to the years in Opposition, then for seven years as a minister and lastly as the President of the Republic.

There have been other former politicians who have published accounts and experiences from their past in politics, but these tend to be anecdotal (Lino Spiteri, Michael Falzon, Tonio Borg), or cloaked in myths.

This, on the contrary, is a very full account, hence the length of the book. It skirts personal events and focuses mainly on his public life.

Some aspects of his personal life, however, could not be left out. The son of Il-Gross, he speaks with emotion on his mother and on his father, even though it is only towards the end of the book that he speaks of the hardship his mother endured when his father fell ill and she had to cope with him, her banka tal-lottu and her children still of school age.

He speaks about the pre-war Cospicua and keeps her feasts especially the Kuncizzjoni till this very day.

Cospicua was il-Gross's Nationalist fortress and Ugo, entering life as a lawyer first and a politician later (1966) counted many Labour supporters (or rather Mintoffjani) among his friends and clients. In this he was, and still is, a role model for PN candidates, always seeking to speak and relate to the Labour side rather than adopt a confrontational approach.

Later on, as he became MP and moved upwards in the PN hierarchy, he did have his clashes with Labour, especially in one pre-election period when he went to Il-Macina to solve an issue but people misunderstood the reason for his presence and were about to lynch him, from which he was saved by (then Party secretary general) Marie-Louise Coleiro who grabbed him by his throat and so saved him.

There is another aspect in which Ugo can serve as a role model for a Party when in Opposition. His main interest being education, he gathered around him people from the education sector and held regular meetings with them, through them getting to know what was happening in the schools.

Yet, while being at the top level within the Party, and one time also contesting for the leadership, he was nowhere at the forefront of the schools battle in the 1980s when the church schools were closed and students used to move from house to house dogged by policemen all the time.

When PN won the May 1987 election, Ugo was made Minister for Education. This was his area while in Opposition and, as already said, he had prepared the ground well.

As minister he led the enormous turnaround of the educational sector which had come though, battered and maimed, from the Labour years. Ugo battled to restore serenity and order to the schools, beginning with his order, the day after he took oath of office, that the doors of the schools be closed to non-members of staff unless with permission.

Area secondary schools were improved and the trade schools stopped being the receptacles of pupils who did not want to study. Arabic was removed from being an obligatory subject.

An even more important reform regarded the university through the collaboration of Peter Serracino Inglott. The numerus clausus was abolished, as were other restrictions; the university welcomed back the Faculty of Arts and of Theology and as a result, the university population soared.

Another reform focused on the Junior College with the introduction, due to Ugo's insistence, on Systems of Knowledge.

Another area where he put in an important contribution regarded the restored relationship with the Vatican. He tells of numerous meetings with Nuncio Pier Luigi Celata, a meticulous diplomat, who was banned from Malta by Mintoff. (Somehow, Celata was never made a cardinal, while his assistant, Beniamino Stella, is now a very important cardinal).

As a result of so many meetings, agreement was reached not just on the return of the Faculty of Theology but also on the church property being passed on to the State.

Ugo was certainly a decisive factor in the reform of the educational system in Malta and you get the impression the minister used to micro-manage his ministry. But 30 years later, one might perhaps ask if the reforms which were carried out were enough, considering for instance the amount of illiteracy and early school-leavers we still have today.

Certainly, however, considering the ministers who succeeded him, he was head and shoulders above them all.

Another area of his ministry which clearly interested him very much related to heritage. He was a prime mover of setting up the Maritime Museum on the Vittoriosa seafront and used to pop in almost every day to see the progress of its restoration.

One other area of his ministerial responsibilities was the environment. He found a difficult situation in that he was faced by the hunters and the trappers on one side and the environmentalists on the other who many times were so purist they were not ready to consider compromises. The sector remains toxic to this very day.

After the 1992 election, he was confirmed as Minister for Education but had the Ministry for Justice added on. One gets the impression he was not at ease in this ministry (his father had been Minister for Justice before him) and in fact he did not last long in this responsibility. One must not forget, in this regard, his crucial role in retrieving Caravaggio's St Jerome from the hands of the thieves who had stolen it in the first days of the 1987 government.

Ugo makes two facts very clear: that he had no role in the choice of his brother, Giuseppe, as Chief Justice (no doubt still smarting over the "All in the family" jibe by the Council of Europe and that he had no role in the decision he was to become President, taken much against his wishes by Eddie Fenech Adami.

Little did he know, when he became President, he was to see his own Party lose the 1996 election, Labour coming to power and losing it less than two years later and that he kept his cool in those turbulent days.

As such, however, he does not give the impression he had much to do. In fact, he rather finds things for himself to do such as caring for the works of art in the palaces. He had none of the current activism for the Community Chest Fund (actually it was his wife who more than him played a principal role). As said, he reserved his energies for doing what a President is there for - to keep the country united, through dialogues with government and opposition.

Obviously, there is much more in a book this long. Written in careful prose from a man used to writing for newspapers, and with only rare negative sentences with regards to very few people, and with a certain amount of humble acceptance where he was mistaken, one can only learn from it.

As I said, none of his contemporaries have come this close to giving an account of their public roles.


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