Malta Diary HELSINKI SUMMIT 40 YEARS AGO – the mouse that roared!
Although at the extreme ends of the political spectrum, veering from Left to Right, the late Prime Ministers Dom Mintoff of Malta and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher were otherwise very much alike. Both were ambitious, determined, hard-headed, intensely patriotic, did not tolerate fools easily and had pre-set goals against which nobody or anything would be allowed to stand in their way to achieve. Both were born in humble surroundings, Mintoff into a large family whose father was a Royal Navy ship’s cook whilst Thatcher’s father was a grocer.
Maggie wearily referred to Dom as “that man!” when Mintoff dragged out negotiations to secure a better financial deal for Malta continuing to serve as a British and NATO base on his re-election in 1971 and stuck to his guns until he achieved what he wanted, a lucrative seven-year deal at the end of which both Britain and NATO would militarily leave and Malta be declared totally “neutral”.
Lord Carrington, who carried out the brunt of negotiations as British Foreign Minister (and later to become NATO Secretary General) later had words of praise for Mintoff in his autobiography. “You never knew where you stood with him. He would request one thing one day and the next day request something completely different”. He admitted that Mintoff was the most difficult politician he had ever had to deal with – which is saying something as Carrington had to deal with Maggie on a daily basis!
US secretary of State Henry Kissinger knew and classed him as “the man who throws tantrums”.
Born on 6th August, 1916 in the dockyard city of Cospicua, Dominic Mintoff (known simply as Dumink to his many thousands of followers or “Il-Perit” – the architect), he went on to graduate in science and civil engineering as an architect by profession and later won a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University where he became friends with Lee Kwan Yu, the founder of modern Singapore. He was a dedicated follower of the Malta Labour Party and became its youngest-ever Secretary General showing a vigour and energy that left many gasping.
He went on to serve three terms as Prime Minister where his early battles were curbing the all-powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Church, later battling to win more financial aid from Britain, leading Malta to become a Republic and for the first time in its history enabling Malta and Gozo to manage their own destiny without being under foreign military control of any kind. On the home front his greatest achievements were in the field of social reform.
Yet, his greatest achievement was that of a poker-like expertise brinksmanship in foreign policy when simply nobody – not even his greatest allies and avid backers – quite knew what his next step would be as he played West against East but always ensuring a positive end result for Malta.
Labelled a “communist” by the Church authorities and his political opponents, he however always kept the Soviet Union at a long arm’s distance, his inner circle knowing he detested Sovietism throughout his lengthy career. Yet, in March 1972 on the very day he signed a new lease agreement with Carrington and NATO he announced he was off to China for a state visit, the first-ever visit by a European leader where he received a tumultuous welcome and secured millions in grants and soft loans for Malta!
He had earlier perplexed the West, the US and NATO by working closely with Libya’s Colonel Gaddaffi and a number of other Arab leaders, building on a lifelong friendship he had with Egypt’s Colonel Nasser.
Where would he turn to next – east, west, Asia, the Middle East? Years later when Gaddaffi sent gunboats to stop Malta drilling for oil in what Gaddaffi classed to be Libyan territorial waters, Mintoff immediately broke off relations with him and threatened to turn towards NATO.
Perhaps his greatest triumph came at the Helsinki Summit Conference in 1975. The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) had been struggling forward since 1973 with a great number of meetings. By 1975 it had moved towards issuing the Final Helsinki Act – when Mintoff stepped in and froze everything in its tracks.
Gerald Ford Jnr was US President and Leonid Brezhnev Soviet supremo, Harold Wilson was Britain’s Prime Minister, Helmut Schmidt Chancellor of West Germany, Giscard d’Estaing President of France and Aldo Moro Italian Prime Minister.
Mintoff strongly insisted that a clause be included stating that unless peace was achieved in the Mediterranean region, there could be no peace in Europe. This was immediately quoshed and only backed by then-Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia. Mintoff was not for moving and insisted that unless the phrase was included he would use his veto. The conference had reached a stalemate.
There followed a week’s delay of meandering during which “that man”, the one “who throws tantrums” was strongly vilified internationally and at home by the Opposition for holding everything up.
Finally, he did get his way and the clause was included in the Final Helsinki Act which paved the way for the start of the dismantling of the Cold War and greater unity in Europe.
Now, 40 years later, Mintoff’s foresight and prophesy has transpired. The Mediterranean region is battered by masses of illegal immigrants, most of the North African coast is a powder-keg, Greece is totally bankrupt and Italy and Spain cling to the edge. The whole Mediterranean instability is threatening the EU and the whole of Europe is at enormous crossroads.
To complicate matters, the rift between Russia, the EU and the USA continues to widen and is almost back on the edge of Cold War status.
However, Dom Mintoff has gained his recognition as a far-seeing prophet. Ten years ago the 30th anniversary of the Helsinki Act was commemorated in Washington and Mintoff’s participation and his Mediterranean clause was widely featured.
This year, the 40th, Mintoff’s admirers have mounted a photographic and documents exhibition in the new Parliament’s entrance coordinated by probably his closest admirer and ally, Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici who succeeded him as Leader of the Labour Party and as Prime Minister. Sadly, KMB (as he is known for short) was the exact opposite of the Mintoff mould – shy, humble, retiring, introvert and soft-spoken and was ousted from Government in the 1987 General Election.
Many years later, when both had retired from the political scene, they appeared together on a live television programme and Mintoff was recounting some of his past experiences when he calmly turned on KMB and told him “you know, the greatest political mistake I made was to nominate you as my successor”.
KMB gravely nodded and in his soft-spoken manner muttered “I agree with you Perit”.
Dom Mintoff passed away on 20th August 2012 aged 94, a firebrand to the end. Three years earlier, aged 91 he caused a frightful scene when he insisted he wanted to contest the General Election. On the closing day of nominations he “ordered” a television journalist to take him to the nominations centre in Valletta. By the time they arrived the nominations period had closed and his nomination could not be accepted. He gave the staff a right ear-bashing using the fruitiest of colourful language, banging on their office walls with his walking stick and then he thumbed a lift back to his home in Tarxien.
In the late 1950s the late and great film actor Peter Sellers featured in the major role of a film “The Mouse That Roared” based on a small European duchy (probably Luxembourg) acquiring the first nuclear bomb and holding the rest of the world to ransom. Well, Dom Mintoff was no mouse by nature and when he roared, he roared and the Helsinki roar was probably his loudest and greatest.