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Mintoff through their eyes: Father, negotiator, teacher

People who were in close contact with former PM share their memories

It was Christmas Eve in 1971 and the lights in the Prime Minister’s office were still on.

I used to avoid talking to him and then he would ask me why I was silent
- former housekeeper

The atmosphere was tense and the lights would not go off for the next two days as the government was locked in negotiations with the UK over its military bases on the island.

Joe Camilleri, then private secretary to Prime Minister Dom Mintoff, recalls how things were “getting hot under the collar”.

The Labour Party was in power for the first time since 1958 and Mr Mintoff wanted the UK to pay more for its military presence.

Mr Mintoff’s brinkmanship eventually saw him close an eight-year deal that cost the UK millions of sterling.

With a lump in his throat, Mr Camilleri admits that the Christmas of 1971 was an unforgettable moment not least because Mr Mintoff only realised Christmas Day was over on Boxing Day.

“We spent more than 48 hours at the office writing letters and corresponding with the UK, Italian and Nato ambassadors and representatives,” Mr Camilleri says.

Describing Mr Mintoff as a man of “discipline and decision”, Mr Camilleri says the man was determined to achieve his goals and would do anything to get there.

“(Dom) Mintoff could achieve his goal by sweet-talking someone into conviction but he also knew how to be forceful and, sometimes, very forceful,” Mr Camilleri says.

Mr Mintoff’s character often led to shouting matches. This could have upset people who did not know him Mr Camilleri admits, but says he always respected individuals who gave an honest opinion.

Mr Mintoff’s former housekeeper, Doris Camenzuli, had the perfect antidote to the bad moods.

“I used to avoid talking to him and then he would ask me why I was silent,” she says.

For seven years Ms Camenzuli did the housework at Mr Mintoff’s house in Tarxien before stopping five years ago. She still kept in touch with Mr Mintoff’s daughter and also visited him in hospital.

Ms Camenzuli has nothing but words of praise for Mr Mintoff. She recalls him telling her to look after her family and avoid the mistakes he made.

“He was like a second father to me, always ready to impart advice and knowledge.”

Her sentiments are shared by Ġanni Vella, who for four years was the handyman at Mr Mintoff’s Tarxien home.

Reluctant to share any personal experiences, Mr Vella describes Mr Mintoff as “a very intelligent” man, who was always ready “to teach”.

Mr Vella’s words aptly describe another characteristic of Mr Mintoff’s political career.

He was constantly on a mission to teach, whether it was a crowd of supporters or a small group of friends enjoying time together at L-Għarix in Delimara, Mr Mintoff’s country home.

Former Labour Minister and friend of Mr Mintoff’s, Karmenu Vella, recalls an anecdote linked to teaching.

“I was reading a book called Everything Is Negotiable and a friend of mine commented that I should ditch the book and take my lessons from Mintoff,” he says.

Mr Mintoff was known for his brinkmanship during negotiations. Mr Vella believes the “tenacity and persuasiveness” Mr Mintoff showed during negotiations were second to none.

“He never showed his intentions until the very end but he always wanted to have a fallback position, ‘a window’ to escape from if the other end closed the door,” Mr Vella says.

Mr Mintoff’s political beliefs were driven by “an ambition to help the poor, seek equality and strive for social justice” and he would stop at nothing to achieve these aims, Mr Vella adds.

The MP said Mr Mintoff had two defects: He did not know how to compromise and never sought perfection.

“Mr Mintoff used to argue that trying to seek the perfect project or idea on paper would stall action. The most important thing was achieving the goal irrespective of the road chosen to do so.”

But Mr Vella believes the overall judgement on Mr Mintoff will tilt the balance in favour of the good deeds the former premier did. “He changed Malta politically, economically and socially.”

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