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Malta gains its Freedom

 Throughout the first eight years of Mintoff's third term as Prime Minister, he relentlessly endeavoured to prepare the nation for the great day, the 31st March 1979.

That was to be the culmination of centuries of struggles by the Maltese people to have their Country under their own complete control.

Total political independence, however, could only be maintained through economic well-being of the nation's only asset: its people. It was therefore not surprising that Mintoff himself engaged in high level discussions with European and other leaders to attract investment to Malta.

The first ever industrial estate on the island was built by the Mintoff-led government in 1956, and an embryo of industrial activity was commenced in the 1966 - 1971 period, during the former Nationalist administration. Mintoff's legendary ability as a negotiatior served the country very well indeed. He managed to convince many countries to assist Malta in its endeavours towards achieving its set goal or economic independence. He visited countries all the world over, met their leaders and invited delegations to visit Malta. It must be emphasised though that despite all efforts, not all countries concretely committed themselves. It is not surprising perhaps that the greatest assistance and co-operation was forthcoming from Communist countries, like the Soviet Union and China. They both knew where they stood with Dom Mintoff, and possibly, they were not prone to be influenced by adverse propaganda spread by the Nationalist Party. Certainly not as much as most European countries' leaders were. Chinese assistance brought about the construction of a new huge dock at the Malta Drydocks. new industrial estates were built and existing ones enlarged. The Chinese government also financed and assisted in the building of a new breakwater in the southern port of Marsaxlokk. At the same time a new runway capable of handling the largest aircraft flying today, was constructed. A new National airline, Air Malta, was also set up despite harsh criticism by the Opposition Nationalists, who for a good number of years completely ignored the national air carrier and preferred foreign companies instead. Air Malta was set up exactly 25 years ago in 1973. with the assistance of the Pakistani Government.Today it has its own fleet of new aircraft employs thousands of workers in fields undreamed of for Maltese youths a quarter of a century ago. Sea Malta, the national cargo carrier was also instituted at that time to provide the country with further foreign income in the maritime transport industry.


In 1974 another constitutional step was taken, when Malta cut its lingering ties with its colonial past and was declared a Republic. The new Constitution was approved by all the members of Parliament - of both parties represented there - except for six, notably the former Prime Minister Dr Gorg Borg Olivier and his closest associates. That event also marked the end of Dr Borg Olivier's political career, since soon after the subsequent elections of 1976, he was removed from the leadership of his party during a secret meeting held during the night by the major contenders for his post.

The 1976 elections were won by the Labour Party with the biggest majority of votes ever registered until then in Malta's political history.

The Government led by Dom Mintoff continued relentlessly in its efforts to improve Malta's economy and at the same time to better ever-more the standard of living of the Maltese. Innumerable housing estates were built, and the infrastructure modernised and consolidated. A new hospital was built next to the existing St Luke Hospital.

However, when in 1977 the opposition Nationalist Party finally elected to its leadership an unknown minor politician, political life took a drastic turn to the worse. Political hatred became rampant, and Nationalist supporters in key government positions did their utmost to hamper the government from attaining its goals. An international campaign was also mounted by the Nationalist Party, depicting Malta as being a country run by dictatorship. Prospective investors were scared away, and even the now flourishing tourist industry was subtley but consistently attacked.

Dr Gorg Borg Olivier died soon after and on the insistence of Dom Mintoff, his former political rival was afforded a State funeral with the participation of President Anton Buttigieg and the Prime Minister himself. Despite this honourable gesture by Mintoff - so characteristically conspicuous in his absence in public activities - the hatred which had already grown in many Nationalist supporters was manifested even during the Borg Olivier funeral, when they booed and shouted insults at him.

31st March 1979


It may be said today, looking back, that Dom Mintoff's whole life had been concentrated on obtaining true freedom for the Maltese people. He worked relentlessly towards that goal, he fought and suffered defeat many times, but at last he managed to see his dream [MPEG SOUND FILE] come true.

To celebrate that event he wanted the people to understand what such a historic event really meant, in actual practical terms, but he also wanted the Maltese to recognise and remember the importance of that unique day.

Nation-wide activities were organised to mark the occasion, an artificial hill was constructed and a commemorative monument erected on top, Freedom Hill, in Vittoriosa, a few metres away from the quay where the last British troops would embark from, on the last British ship to leave the Island, the HMS London.

The official celebrations came to an ovewhelming climax at midnight of the 31st March 1979 when despite the extreme weather prevailing on that day, thousands of people packed the Cottonera area to see the Prime Minister climb up Freedom Hill, light the Torch of Freedom, and observe a British sailor lowering the British flag, while a Maltese worker hoisted the red-and white Maltese flag at the top of the monument.

All those present and near the Prime Minister at that historic moment - including myself - could not fail to notice how emotionally overwhelmed as never before, Dom Mintoff was as he stepped forward together with Gorg Agius, the General Workers Union leader, up the steep hill. Both were carrying lit torches. All could see Dom Mintoff waiving off Gorg Agius' helping hand as he climbed on top of the boulders to reach the urn which he lit for the first time, just before the church bells in the background struck midnight . An unforgettable great festive air reigned over Grand Harbour that night.

That was I dare say, Mintoff's greatest moment in the greatest day of his whole political life!

HMS London left Malta ceremoniously the following morning with all the remaining British troops who had spent that night on board. The President of the Republic, Dr Anton Buttigieg waived the British off from his stand on top of the formidable Valletta bastions, overseeing Grand Harbour.

That was the end of an era, and the beginning of a new one.

Now, new challenges were facing the Mintoff government.

The final departure of the British troops from Malta marked also the end of financial assistance from that country. Malta depended as of that day, completely on its own efforts for survival and prosperity. The government did its utmost to maintain the steady progress that had been achieved in the previous few years.

But a new menace faced the government, this time from within the country itself.

In its efforts to win over popular support, the newly elected Nationalist Party leader Dr Eddie Fenech Adami, and his associates, embarked on an international campaign to smear Malta's name in the international community. The infamous Malta File was circulated by the Nationalists through a Maltese man working in the U.S. They mobilised their Demo-Christian allies in Europe convincing them that democracy was being threatened in Malta, and that Mintoff had become a dictator.

On the home front, an equally effective campaign accusing Government members of corruption was launched. The Nationalist campaign was consistent as much as it was insistent, claiming eventually that corruption was institutionalised!

Although no actual corruption was eventually proved, yet the constant hammering did have its concrete effects. At the same time it cannot be denied that some did abuse their powers for their own and others' benefit. It was surely a political blunder not to have prosecuted these persons. Eventually many of these same persons, continued to abuse even when the Nationalist party was in government in the latter half of the '80s. Some of them are still having their good share today too, despite the 'new look' of the Labour Party!

There also was another important factor at play. Working-class Maltese in the '70s improved their life-styles to an unprecedented degree. Reforms in the education sector opened up higher education to all who could cope with it, and thus a new middle-class emerged consisting of formerly working class people. Many of these upcoming middle-classers thus did not identify themselves any longer with the status they had left behind. Instead they changed their political alliance to the Nationalist Party, traditionally the party which looked after the interests of the higher classes of society. This too contributed to a change in the support for the Labour government, which throughout the beginning of the '80s diminished.

On his part, Dom Mintoff, now ageing and fearful of the possibility of leaving his party without an adequate successor, and, which may be even more important, disillusioned by the attitude of the Nationalist Party who was doing its utmost to destroy an economy and country which he had so laboriously built through so many years of painstaking efforts, faced the electorate on the eve of the 1981 elections with the promise that he would not lead the nation without the majority of the people behind him.

Constitutional Deficiency

This declaration was catastrophic for Malta, since the Labour Party did win the elections and was voted to Government for a third consecutive term, but it obtained less votes than the Nationalist Party.

The fault lay in the electoral system which Dom Mintoff had fought ever since it was incorporated into the Independence Constitution, in 1964. He insisted that the system be changed when the new Republican Constitution was drawn up, but had to give in to Nationalist Party demands and compromise on this issue.

This system had advantaged the Nationalist Party in the 1966 elections, and almost had the same effect in 1971 too. The trick was simple really. Party political analysts would examine closely where the party votes are. The Government appointed Electoral Commission would then change the electoral districts in such a way that there will be as few wasted votes as possible in the each district for the party in government! Thus that party would elect to Parliament a larger number of deputies and therefore obtain the necessary majority.

In 1971 this jerrymandering was so well planned that the Nationalist Party lost the government for only six votes on the fifth district. That means that MLP candidate Dr Joe Abela obtained six votes more than the Nationalist candidate opposing him. Eventually the Malta Labour Party obtained complexively, a much larger number of votes in its favour than the Nationalists.

In previous years the Malta Labour Party had taken to Court, the Electoral Commission. The party lost its case however.

Prior to the 1976 and 1981 elections the Electoral Commission revised the electoral districts, and was naturally accused by the Nationalists of jerrymandering, but was wisely not taken to Court. The best lawyers on the Island are also the foremost politicians in the Nationalist Party!

In 1981, though the Nationalists accused the Labour Government of jerrymandering the elections, and did not concede defeat. They had actually obtained more votes than the Labour Party, but these votes were not reflected in the number of elected members to Parliament.

The Nationalists therefore mounted a destructive policy the likes of which Malta had never seen before.

They boycotted Parliament for a number of years, and rallied support from many sectors of the Maltese society, as well as their political allies abroad. They left no stone unturned to turn foreign governments against the Maltese government. For many foreign governments, led by Demo-Christian or Conservative politicians, this was a god-send, for they never liked the idea of having a Socialist government in Malta. The United States President Ronald Reagan, for instance, bluntly refused the insistent requests made by the Maltese President Miss Agatha Barbara for an official visit.

Numerous politically-motivated criminal acts were perpetrated against those who collaborated with the Government. The many small unions representing various categories of workers, were organised in a single body, and injected with a good dose of political motivation suddenly burst to life as never before. Strikes of all types and kinds were organised in a concerted effort to bring down the Labour Government.

This strife culminated in the brutal killing of Karen Grech, the 17-year-old daughter of a medical doctor Professor Edwin Grech who returned from abroad and was working at the Government hospital during a long strike ordered by the Medical Association. Doctors at the time refused to attend their patients in Government hospitals - free of charge for the patients. They did not stop seeing patients in their private clinics, and charging patients for their services.

Mintoff at this time seems to have wanted to call general elections again, but it is known that his colleagues in the cabinet were against it. Mintoff never was the dictator he was accused of being.

However he designated a new leader for the party, Dr Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who having been approved by the Labour Party general conference, was later coopted into Parliament and eventually took the leadership of the Party and became the new Prime Minister.

Meantime, the elected Nationalist deputies, had lost their seatin Parliament for not having attended the sittings as required by Parliamentary regulations.

In a gesture of good-will by the Labour Party, these MPs were co-opted into Parliament to enable them to return to their abandoned seats.

Mintoff's retirement from the leadership of the party did not mean his retirement from politics. On the contrary he continued his activity unrelentlessly behind the scenes to bring about a consensus between the two major political parties on constitutional amendments regarding mainly the electoral system and the effectiveness of the post of President of the Republic. He advocated a system similar to those of the U.S. and France, an executive Presidency, rather than the Constitutional Presidency as at present. The Nationalists accused Mintoff that he was preparing for a come-back as the new President of Malta. I know that at the time there was infact some uncertainty about the matter even in Labour Party ranks, and in other quarters, including the Office of the President.

As another sign of good-will, and in view of the upcoming general elections, the Labour Government did not appoint a new President of the Republic when in February 1987 the term of Miss Agatha Barbara came to an end. Instead, agreement was reached between the Labour and Nationalist parties to appoint an interim President in the person of Mr Paul Xuereb. He was the only President of Malta to date to have been elected with the consent of both sides of the House of Representatives. Mr Xuereb was to stay in office for as long as was necessary until the two sides reached agreement on Constitutional reform.

The discussions at a special commission level, formed by representatives of the two parties did not come up with any solution to the dilemma in time for the elections.

That election was won by the Nationalist Party. The discussions went on for two more years, but still no agreement was reached. This time it was in the interests of the Nationalist Government not to have an executive Presidency as this would have meant a curtailment in their administrative powers.

The discussions were abruptly ended when the Nationalist Government appointed Dr Censu Tabone, its own representative on the commission, to be the next President.

Dom Mintoff again contested the election of 1992 and that of 1996 which was to be his last, and maintained the enormous support he had enjoyed ever since contesting his first general election in 1947.

During the 1996 - 1998 Labour-led legislation, notwithstanding the fact that he is now an octagenarian, he was still extremely active in Parliament, and maintained his characteristic eloquence honesty and integrity. He did not hesitate to vote against the Labour Government or abstaining his vote, on matters which he deemed were not beneficial to the working class majority of people in this miniscule Republic. Dom Mintoff's un-planned retirement from the political scene by not contesting the unwarranted 1998 General Election, has left a strong impact on Maltese history as I shall shortly discuss in the next pages.


Go Back


Is-Snin tal-Misthija - The Years of Shame- 1961 - 1969

Malta Stands Up to British Imperialism- 1958

Gallery of Pictures   Dom Mintoff's Family Album

Mintoff's Political Career in Pictures


Acknowledgements: The author acknowledges with thanks the publishers of various Maltese political and other publications, where the pictures in these pages were originally published.The Author declares that all scripts in these pages are original and views expressed, therefore subjective. Pictures used in these pages are mostly scanned from MLP and GWU publications. Many are reproduced from newspapers, hence the lack in quality. All literary works in these pages are also original and are being published for the first time. None of the written material may be published in whole or in part without the express written permission by the Author. E.C. Schembri

© 1998   E.C. Schembri