MALTA DIARY: The long and rocky road to the total freedom of the Maltese Islands 40 years ago – Part One
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The late Dominic Mintoff was born in Cospicua on 6th August, 2016, midway through World War I. He went on to become an architect and civil engineer, a politician, three times Prime Minister of Malta and the man who engineered Malta’s total freedom and independence from Colonial Rule on 31st March, 1979 – 40 years ago at the end of this month.
The Mintoff family was basically working class, his father Wenzu (Lawrence) being a cook in the British Royal Navy while his mother Cetta (Concetta i.e. Conception) foraged a living as a house agent on a commission basis in between bringing up a family – mainly in their father’s absence at sea.
Nevertheless their offsprings gained an excellent education. Dom Mintoff’s two sisters became nuns, a brother became a Franciscan monk and another brother also became an architect. Dom was a brilliant scholar and won a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University before becoming the youngest General Secretary of the Malta Labour Party and later Leader of the same party.
Dom Mintoff was a no-nonsense firebrand who did not mince his words and this later caused British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington to pronounce him ruefully as “the trickiest politician” he had ever had to deal with. Margaret Thatcher simply referred to him as “that man!”
From his early days in politics, Mintoff was strongly anti-colonialist and a staunch patriot who came out with his famous phrase “Malta always comes First and Foremost” – a phrase still much loved and treasured today. Malta’s Colonial status rattled his bile from early on.
Some say it was ignited when a group of drunken English sailors passed by their house and beat up his father.
More realistically, he could never stomach Malta and its people being regarded as some kind of inferior entities and in this he found the support of a number of politicians in the British Labour Party, including Nye Bevan and Woodrow Wyatt.
His ire became more fervent in the aftermath of World War II and the extensive damages suffered through four years of almost continuous Axis bombing and the involvement of thousands of Maltese in the British military, mainly the Royal Navy.
Malta had been awarded the George Cross for bravery yes, but Dom blew his top when Malta applied for post-war Marshall Aid to make good the damages but had its request refused. That kicked off his campaign until he finally achieved his aim 40 years ago.
In the early 1950s he came out with the revolutionary idea of Integration. If Malta had to stay in the then British Empire, it should be on a completely equal basis, with Maltese MPs at Westminster and equal pay for all Maltese personnel in British military services as well equal education and social services, principally, a National Health Scheme.
His main opponent in this was the Church in Malta with the then Archbishop claiming this would be a stepping stone to the introduction of Protestantism and the eclipse of the Roman Catholic Church. Malta’s Nationalist Party backed the Church and continued to use the Church and the spreading of religious fear as their stepping stone to power for many decades to follow.
When Integration did not succeed, Mintoff reeled out his alternative. “Pay Up or Go Home” he shouted. The basis of this was that the British Government should pay for all the services it used in Malta for its own defence, that is, territorial waters, air-space, foreign policy, total control of broadcasting through a British company, and large tracts of the best land available in Malta.
Mintoff became Prime Minister for the first time in 1955 and the next three years until his resignation in 1958 were to say the least, tumultuous. Total Independence became his main battle-cry. Protest marches and strikes became frequent, culminating in a Nation-wide strike on 28th April, 1958 when Malta was completely paralysed.
The most violent demonstrations were at the Malta Drydocks, then still under the reins of the British Admiralty but a staunch Mintoff-support hotbed, as well as in Malta’s main roads. This put the Malta Police Force in a quandary in having to obey their British mentors but finding it difficult to act against their own countrymen.
Much the same quandary faced Maltese personnel in the British Services, including my own father in the RAF as we were stationed in Malta at the time and he had to go to work on the day wearing his RAF Officer’s official uniform!
On his way back home he was stopped in a road block of stones set up by demonstrators at Birkirkara who saw him in uniform and took him for a Brit. They tried to overturn his car until he wound down the window and gave them a few choice words in Maltese.
The situation changed like magic. The road block was immediately dismantled and he was escorted safely through and applauded all round.
Four months later Mintoff resigned in protest against the British Government and Malta embarked on a new and highly disturbing phase in its lengthy history.
A word of explanation. Some quarters in Britain regarded Mintoff as being “anti-British”, which he was not. His wife was British and his two daughters were brought up in Britain. Mintoff was NOT anti-British, but he was totally against high-handed British Governance when he felt that Malta was being hard done by.
TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
“The small fish can never swallow the larger fish”.
The uselessness of the small man taking on the big system stacked against him.