‘First, there’s Our Lord. But after that, there is Mintoff’
A divisive character throughout his adult life, Dom Mintoff was accustomed to being received with adulation by one crowd and abhorrence by the next.
But there is one corner of Malta where Mr Mintoff’s reputation remains unblemished.
To residents of his hometown Cospicua, the four-time Prime Minister remains nothing short of a legend.
“There never was and never will be a man like Dom Mintoff,” nonagenarian Giovanna Cassar said yesterday. “He was a soldier, a general. I’ll love him until the day I die.”
Mr Mintoff was born in a corner house in Irish street, Cospicua, and continued to nurture a soft spot for the Inner Harbour city for the rest of his 96 years.
And if the words of Irish street’s modern-day frequenters are anything to go by, Cospicuans remain fiercly loyal to their hometown hero.
Local resident Raymond Zammit lives just a few doors down from Mr Mintoff’s childhood home.
Too young to have ever had Mr Mintoff as a neighbour, he described the political giant as “a star without equal”.
“He was the workers’ hero. Working and living conditions have continued to improve since his time but he was the one who started it all. I doff my cap to him.”
Just one hour earlier, opposition leader Joseph Muscat had laid a bouquet of flowers at the door of Mr Mintoff’s birthplace. But Mr Zammit has little time for modern-day politicians.
“Many try to imitate him but current politicians don’t love workers – they love their [parliamentary] seats.”
Around the corner from Mr Zammit, Teresa Cassar had a more personal take on Mr Mintoff.
The house she called home was designed by Mr Mintoff, an architect by profession, whom Mrs Cassar described as “a family friend”. “He’d meet people at their own level – he could act prim and proper or base, depending on who he was talking to,” she said.
“He felt very strongly about the poor. I remember being 18 or 19, and him telling a group of old people sitting on their doorstep, ‘Once I’m elected, the first thing I’ll do is get you pensions.’ And he did.”
Mrs Cassar gave a slight shiver of emotion. “I was so taken by him. I remember telling him: ‘When will I be able to vote for you?’ He’d just smile and say ‘Be patient, it will happen.’ And it did, too, when he gave us the vote.”
To Raymond Chircop, Mr Mintoff “led one of the best governments Malta ever had”.
He thought back to the early 1970s.
“From Lm 4 (€9.32) a week I started earning Lm 12 (€27.95). It was the difference between being poor and living decently. He lifted Malta up onto its own two feet. I still remember the introduction of children’s allowance.”
So too did Mrs Cesare. “I was a single mother back then. Do you have any idea what a difference having a children’s allowance made to me? It saved me and my children.”
Mr Chircop furrowed his brow when asked to mention one negative point to Mr Mintoff’s years in power.
“I wouldn’t have given them [the Nationalist Party] the majority in the 1980s,” he said, referring to the 1987 Constitutional amendments which ensured the party with a majority of votes was elected into government.
Born in Cospicua but now a Marsascala resident, Rose Borg was looking for Mr Mintoff’s childhood home when The Times caught up with her.
“Mr Mintoff often came round to our house when I was a little girl, smoking his pipe. To tell you the truth I was afraid of him. He had a great heart and always put others ahead of himself. And he always had a finger on the pulse of workers and the impoverished.”
And what of those who saw Mr Mintoff as less of a hero than his fellow Cospicuans? Mrs Borg cut them short shrift, drawing Biblical parallels.
“When Our Lord got furious at market sellers in the temple, the people weren’t happy but He did it anyway. And some time later, they called for His Crucifixion. People will badmouth anyone.”
Religious imagery abounded in Mrs Cesare’s thoughts, too.
“Mr Mintoff was born on Is-Salvatur [The Transfiguration of Christ, August 6] and that’s what he was – Malta’s saviour. First, there’s Our Lord. But after that, there is Mintoff.”