Controversial legacy of the boy from Cospicua
A firebrand politician and four-time Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff kept playing games with the media right until the end, as he cheated death numerous times in the past. He evoked equal measures of reverence and contempt, but nobody can deny the man was a legend who left an indelible stamp on the island’s history.
Malta’s longest serving politician, Il-Perit – as he was fondly referred to by his acolytes – remained at the heart of Maltese politics right up to 2003, when he campaigned against Malta joining the EU.
From becoming the youngest Prime Minister to first fighting against the British for the island’s integration then battling for independence in the 1950s, and eventually instigating the downfall of his own party in 1998, it was always clear from a young age that the man was going places.
Mr Mintoff will be remembered for the social reform he brought to the island and the welfare state he engineered when he was Prime Minister between 1955 and 1958 and between 1971 and 1984.
A fiery, yet charismatic, character, he will go down in history as the man who undermined Paul Boffa’s government in the late 1940s and Alfred Sant’s government a generation later.
Born in Cospicua, a city that remained his loyal heartland towards the end, he studied at the seminary, going on to study engineering. He won a Rhodes scholarship and attended Oxford University in England.
He entered politics at the age of 19, as assistant secretary of the Cospicua Labour Party Club, clinching the role of general secretary months after. He held the position for two years before resigning to pursue his studies abroad. He continued where he left off when he returned from England in 1944 to help rebuild his war-ravaged country.
He was appointed to the Council of Government in 1945 and elected for the first time in the 1947 general election, which returned a Labour government.
He was Minister for Reconstruction under Prime Minister Paul Boffa and became party deputy leader. However, he viewed his leader’s stance in Malta’s demands for a more generous post-war assistance as weak so he eventually ousted Mr Boffa and stepped in his shoes at the party helm in 1949.
The Labour Party split and Dr Boffa set up the Malta Workers’ Party. He eventually allied himself with George Borg Olivier for a succession of weak coalition governments.
Mr Mintoff became Prime Minister in 1955, an era that ended in turmoil in 1958 when he campaigned for, and failed to achieve, integration with Britain; a fight lost not least because of opposition from the Church. He later went in the opposite direction, pushing for the island’s Independence, only to be beaten to it by George Borg Olivier.
A Break With Britain resolution was adopted and social unrest led to the suspension of the Constitution in 1958 after Mr Mintoff resigned. Relations with the Church worsened and Archbishop Michael Gonzi declared before the 1962 election that anyone voting for Labour would be committing a mortal sin.
His clash with the Church probably cost the Labour Party the two elections held in that decade. Peace was eventually reached, but Mr Mintoff continued to erode the privileges and influence of the Church, when he regained power in 1971 – such as introducing civil marriage in 1975.
Mr Mintoff’s grip on the government was absolute – he was also foreign minister and home affairs minister for most of his years as Prime Minister.
The hallmark of his administration was a raft of social benefits aimed at raising the living standards of the lower strata of society.
The economy grew rapidly but eventually became a command economy with imports, in particular, closely controlled by the government which adopted a policy of bulk buying and shunned imports from countries with which Malta had an unfavourable trade balance.
Various sectors, such as the provision of fuel, broadcasting and the banks, were brought under government control. Private hospitals closed their doors, though not without a fight.
During his tenure, Mr Mintoff looked East, rather than West. Within months of taking office in 1971, tough negotiations with Britain’s Lord Carrington forged a new defence and financial agreement leading to the end of 200 years of British military presence in 1979.
Making Malta a Republic in 1974 and then overseeing the closure of the British military base on March 31, 1979, is one of the most important days of his political life.
Within hours of forging that agreement, he surprised Western democracies by flying off to Communist China to forge a lasting friendship, which included generous assistance for infrastructural projects, notably the Red China dock and the Freeport.
Despite shifting to the East and labelling Western Europe as the Europe of Cain, Mr Mintoff’s policies remained something of a mystery – the then USSR was allowed to open an embassy here only in the 1980s.
At the same time he insisted Malta’s future lay in neutrality and non-alignment, which he was to eventually hammer into the Constitution in 1987 in return for the most elementary of democratic safeguards – majority rule.
Mr Mintoff also forged a close friendship with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, who bankrolled him in the early months of his 1971 government as funds ran dry and Britain threatened to pull out its forces – and their cash – from Malta.
The friendship with Col Gaddafi was to endure, despite a dispute over oil exploration rights which saw Mr Mintoff calling Libyan action to stop Maltese exploration as the actions of the worst enemy.
During his political tenure there were various outbreaks of violence, notably during a long running strike by doctors.
On October 15, 1979 an angry party supporter managed to almost make his way to Mr Mintoff’s office in Castille, Valletta. A shot was fired, and although Mr Mintoff was never in danger, violence ensued.
The offices of The Times newspaper, just opposite Castille, were torched and the residence of then Opposition leader Eddie Fenech Adami was ransacked, with his wife beaten up – a day that goes down in history as Black Monday.
Mr Mintoff said he was sorry, but no one was ever arraigned.
Matters hit lower depths in 1981 when Labour won a majority of seats in the House but the Nationalist Party won a majority of votes. Mr Mintoff still formed a government, despite later indicating he only did so because of pressure from his Cabinet.
He eventually handed over the leadership to his hand-picked successor Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici in 1984 but continued to pull the strings until Labour lost the 1987 election.
Throughout his years as party leader Mr Mintoff was revered by his supporters. However, he fell out with the party and saw his image among the Mintoffjani shattered in 1998 following a dispute with then Labour Prime Minister Alfred Sant.
The situation worsened when Dr Sant – who had likened Mr Mintoff to a traitor – turned the Cottonera yacht marina project into a confidence vote.
Mr Mintoff voted against the yacht marina project and Dr Sant’s government majority collapsed. Labour lost the subsequent three general elections.
A man who hardly ever held press conferences, never held consultation meetings and hardly allowed anyone a glimpse into his private life, Mr Mintoff used to captivate Labourites with his intense, sometimes vulgar, at times humorous oratory.
Until old age he used to go for a swim in Delimara come rain or shine. He also used to enjoy horse riding and bowls.
As his chapter closes, many will remember what was at the heart of his beliefs and at the end of all his speeches – Malta l-ewwel u qabel kollox.