MALTA DIARY: The long and rocky road to the total freedom of the Maltese Islands 40 years ago – Part Two
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With Dom Mintoff’s resignation as Prime Minister and hence the Government’s resignation in 1958, the Maltese Islands entered into a period of ugly turbulence which undoubtedly left its scars, some which continue to rankle down to the present day, particularly in the religious sphere. Some historians pinpoint this time as the start of a steady decline in the Church Curia’s hold and influence over the population of the two islands and nowadays more highly accelerated by far more liberal considerations.
The less said about this period, the better. On the political side, the ruling British Government took absolute control and temporarily abolished further General Elections, leaving the islands in a stagnant limbo of ugly in-fighting.
Although feelings remained high and bitter, some sanity was restored and a General Election was once more held in 1962 and in which the Nationalist Party was elected with Dr Giorgio Borg Olivier as Prime Minister and immediately embarked on a call for Independence from British rule.
The timing was propitious. Colonialism was on the wane and British finance was on the decline with its colonies seen to be appendages that were continuing to weaken the British Exchequer because of crippling defence costs. Thus began a period when Britain began to loosen its Empire to decrease the financial burdens.
Malta was one of those granted Independence which was set for 21st September, 1964.
One would have thought that Mintoff would be over the moon at the news. To the contrary, he was furious!
Premier Borg Olivier had obtained what he could get – in short the complete internal administration of the Islands. For “security” reasons, the British Government remained in control of territorial waters, the country’s air space, the country’s airport, many tracts of best land and mainly foreign policy while a British company (Rediffusion) controlled broadcasting.
Borg Olivier was a good soul and tried to make the best of it and declared that the country’s economy should henceforth be based on tourism, industry and agriculture and fisheries. Tourism advertising commenced and an industrial estate came into being.
Following two terms of Government, the Nationalist Government was ousted in 1971 by the narrowest of margins (a handful of votes) and Dom Mintoff’s Malta Labour Party returned to Government once more with him as PM – and the whirlwind began!
Developments were breathtakingly rapid. In the interim, Britain had allowed NATO forces to move in – another development that riled Mintoff – whose very first action was to declare Italian Admiral Birindelli (head of NATO in Malta) as a “persona non grata” because of his connections to Italian Fascism.
The British Governor-General, Sir Maurice Dorman, was relegated to a mere figurehead, the Commissioner of Police, Vivian de Gray, was sacked and Mintoff made his demands to the British Government – you use, you pay – if you don’t pay… bye, bye.
Like a poker player, Mintoff used his hand close to his chest. He refused to discuss with NATO, maintaining that his discussions were solely with the British Government and they in turn represented NATO.
In negotiations with the then British Foreign Minister Lord Carrington he wheeled and dealt, sometimes using the threat he would invite the Russians to open a base in Malta (even though he never, ever had any truck with the Russian Government and in fact did not even grant them an Embassy!), and at other times that he would reach an agreement with Libya’s Gaddaffi.
Later, Carrington wrote that Mintoff was “the trickiest” politician he had ever had to deal with, describing that Mintoff often changed his mind at the drop of a hat and changed his stance completely and that in short, one never knew whether one was coming or going!
At the end of all the stamping and stomping, an agreement was finally reached. Mintoff leased Malta as a British and NATO base, tied to a deadline of midnight, 31st March, 1979 – after which Malta would become totally free and independent for the very first time in its history – free to manage its own destiny.
Hardly had the signature ink dried on the signed agreement, when Dom Mintoff astounded Britain, Europe and the world – he jetted off to China to sign a number of loan and cooperative agreements – becoming the FIRST-EVER Leader in the western world to officially visit Communist China!
In the interim, Malta was declared a Republic and the British Sovereign was removed as Head of State on 13th December, 1974 and Sir Anthony Mamo was sworn in as Malta’s first-ever Maltese Head of State as President. However, the Queen continued to be revered as Head of the Commonwealth and Malta was and remains a solid member of the Commonwealth.
The 31st March, 1979 dawned a stormy and rainy day that threatened to disrupt all the planned celebrations. However, by the late afternoon, the strong wind and driving rain abated and everything went off smoothly at the ceremonial monument in Vittoriosa – close to Mintoff’s birthplace.
For the first time in its long and stormy history Malta could at last say it was totally and truly independent of foreign domination.
The start of the first part of this article last week mentioned that Dom Mintoff had been born on 6th August, 1916. In the Roman Catholic calendar the 6th of August is dedicated to the feast of Our Saviour.
Mintoff’s diehard supporters daubed him as “Malta’s saviour” – a title they still use today.
In this case, the “small fish” had taken on the “larger fish” and triumphed (see ‘Maltese Saying’ last week and this week).
Such was the dynamism of Dominic Mintoff.
“The small fish can never swallow the larger fish”.
The uselessness of the small man taking on the big system stacked against him.