The Malta Independent 18 July 2024, Thursday
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Book review Independence 60 years later (2)

Noel Grima Sunday, 16 June 2024, 08:55 Last update: about 2 months ago

When the British Secret Service believed there was a plot to kill George Borg Olivier

'The Origins of Maltese Statehood: A case study of decolonisation in the Mediterranean'

Author: Henry Frendo

Publisher: BDL Ltd / 1999

Pages: 728

 

 

In the last weeks before Independence Day on 21 September 1964 when there were many issues that were still outstanding, time was pressing and the Labour Party was on the warpath.

On the one hand the British were concerned that many countries that had just obtained independence succumbed to riots, coups d'etat and civil war in just a few months.

They also were worried that the situation in Cyprus, Libya and Egypt had rapidly deteriorated and this made a British presence in Malta more important at the same time that Britain was running down its presence.

Then there was Mintoff and his increasingly bellicose public speeches.

Mintoff had not accepted the referendum result and wanted fresh elections without any interference by the Church.

Then things became darker especially after Mintoff was welcomed by Nasser in Egypt and was promised help in case of a coup.

A select group of Labour supporters started to see how many weapons the party faithful could come up with and some preparations were made to start training.

On the other hand the Police Force received weapons, usually at night, and training of riot control was carried out in the Floriana parade ground in full view.

Then as the date got nearer and the preparations for the ceremonies were in full swing the Secret Service received a tip-off that there was a plot to kill Prime Minister George Borg Olivier during the Independence celebrations.

The British were alarmed at this tip-off especially since Prince Philip, the Queen's representative, could be hurt or killed in the attempt.

The Secret Service received reports that funds were being collected and a man who was willing to carry out this murder was being sought.

Mintoff, however, was not told of the plot because it was thought he would be afraid of retaliation.

Nor was Borg Olivier told of the plot at that point.

The UK Commissioner told his superiors in London that three weeks had passed since information on the murder plot had been received and there had been no subsequent confirmation of it and in his opinion the risk of the plot materialising was remote.

Police Chief de Gray had taken the precaution of asking the Commander of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch for assistance and Chief Superintendent Suttling was arriving in Malta on the following day, Wednesday, 17 September.

That same day, Tuesday, 16th a top level meeting was held by Duncan Sandys at the Commonwealth Relations Office in London. This was also attended by Commander E. Jones from the Metropolitan Police and Mr P. L. Taylor from the Home Office.

The meeting was called specifically to discuss the report of "talk in the Malta Labour Party of a plot to murder the Prime Minister of Malta, probably during the Independence celebrations, with consequent risk to the Duke of Edinburgh".

In discussion it was agreed that whatever view was taken of the seriousness of this report, "we could not afford to take any risks".

Sandys then gave the following instructions. First, Chief Superintendent Suttling, a senior officer in the Special Branch, who had left for Malta that same day, should prepare an assessment as to the extent of the danger.

Second, if there was a serious risk, it would be necessary to take at once such exceptional measures as might be required; but even if the risk was slight, all reasonable precautions, short of extreme measures, should be taken to ensure the safety of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Third, detailed information was required of the precautions being made by the Malta Commissioner of Police to judge their adequacy. The Inspector General of Colonial Police, Sir Ivo Stourton, should go to Malta at once to obtain this information and discuss the position with the Commissioner of Police there.

Fourth, enquiries should be made to find out why this information had been withheld from Dr Borg Olivier, so that a decision would be taken as to whether he should not be told.

Sandys considered that Dr Borg Olivier "ought also to be fully informed of these reports and of the security measures being taken". It was presumed that this could be done "without compromising the source". Possibly it would be desirable also to let Mr Mintoff know. "Perhaps you could suggest this to the Prime Minister."

Sandys wished his own Police Advisor, Sir Ivo Stourton, to fly out urgently to discuss plans with Chief Superintendent Suttling and Commissioner de Gray.

Although it was felt that de Gray would be averse from such a visit, it was important that Stourton had full cooperation.

The British Commissioner was instructed to put this proposal to Dr Borg Olivier and to report back urgently before 6pm that same day as to whether Stourton's visit would be acceptable.

Stourton could fly out that night catching a plane from London at 9.20pm.

The Commissioner phoned up in the late afternoon to say he had been unable to see Dr Borg Olivier but he was sure it would be OK for Stourton to fly out that night. He would meet him and put him up. He was confident that he would be able "to fix this" with the Prime Minister in the morning.

That night, de Gray informed Borg Olivier of the reports. He also briefed him on the security measures being taken. Borg Olivier realized that the fullest possible precautions were necessary but was not himself "at all alarmed". Nor did he think it desirable to inform Mintoff about the reports.

The identity of the source was never revealed. The celebrations went ahead and there was no assassination attempt.

The Labour opposition was expressed in demonstration in Valletta on 20 September, another one in the night of Independence and yet another one during the State Opening of Parliament when the Labour Opposition walked out as the Duke was about to speak.

In all these demonstrations the Police contained the crowd with some knocking of heads. The demonstrators fled, leaving behind sandals and shoes, returning later to retrieve them.

Having sown the wind, Mintoff now risked reaping the whirlwind. At a meeting in Naxxar in June he had warned that blood would be shed. But then he realized that those who he called the "hot-heads" were taking matters into their own hands. Thus, speaking at Birkirkara in July he said the party should win "through the use of reason not by the shedding of blood".


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