Dom Mintoff, 96, loses his final battle
In the nature of things, the death of Dom Mintoff at the age of 96 should not be cause for surprise. There are not many who reach that age. However, for those who lionised him during his lifetime, his passing will be deeply felt.
Few will disagree he was a formidable force during an active political career that lasted from soon after the end of the Second World War until 1998 when his last act was to bring down the Labour government led by Alfred Sant. He was not a man easily to be tampered with.
His decision to step down as Prime Minister in 1984 and to impose on his party and the country a man who was not even a Member of Parliament was par for the course. His entire political life was marked by this ability to decide matters in a manner uniquely his own, a characteristic he extended to his leadership of the country.
Throughout his time as leader of the nation between 1955 and 1958 and from 1971 to 1984, Dom Mintoff acted with a strong sense of purpose.
He enjoyed brinkmanship in his dealings with his political opponents and leaders of other countries with whom he entered into any form of negotiations. He brooked no opposition once he decided on a course of action, an attitude that created division and sometimes led to ugly situations of violence, as was the case in 1979 when the premises of this newspaper were torched and the home of the Leader of the Opposition ransacked.
He was, in short, a controversial figure from the day he broke with his leader, Paul Boffa, to the day he broke with Britain (with the agreement of the entire House) in 1958, to the day he broke with Dr Sant 40 years later.
For the last he paid dearly, relegated from a status of saviour to that of traitor by those in the party who felt he had gone too far that time.
Mr Mintoff’s main strategic objective as a politician was to sever Malta from its colonial and monarchical roots (but he was equally happy to pursue the path of integration with Britain in the Fifties). He achieved the latter when Malta became a Republic in 1974.
In domestic matters, Mintoff’s lasting achievement was to introduce meaningful social welfare benefits and a minimum wage.
In other areas, such as wealth creation, his socialist ideology ran away with him. His nationalisation of the Bank of Valletta without compensation to its shareholders and the methods he employed, still rankles.
He was not above suspending the Constitutional Court in 1974 to use this as a bargaining counter to get his way over amendments he wished to make to the Constitution. He fought long and hard to have Malta’s neutrality entrenched in the Constitution, which it was in 1986 prior to a general election in 1987 that saw Labour out of government.
In foreign affairs he was a nationalist in the literal sense to his finger tips and, to put it mildly, adventurous. He famously referred to western Europe as Cain and communist eastern Europe as Abel and refused to embrace the European Economic Community.
Much has been said about him. Much will continue to be said in the coming days. One of the great tragedies for Malta is that this paradox of a man could not finish – or even get close to finishing despite writing reams – a book which might have provided insight into his motivations.
Even those who detested him, and whom he undoubtedly hurt, would have wanted to know them. He remains as enigmatic in death as he was in life.