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A gentle man of politics

I had known for quite a while that my namesake, former Nationalist MP Carm Lino Spiteri, was ill. But when I heard that he had passed on a week ago, like so many others who knew him, I was filled with deep sadness. Iċ-Ċumpaqq, as he was affectionately known to one and all, was one of the best people one could know. He was a gentle man as well as a gentleman. He brought that to our political life and for that alone he will be sorely missed by friend and former foe alike.

It says much of his character and standing that, before the 1971 election, he was courted to stand as a candidate by both the Nationalist and the Labour leaders. He chose the former, and served the PN faithfully through thick and thin. He got into the House through a by-election, but was elected directly in 1976, as he did very successfully once again in 1981. He was a hard critic of the Labour government and often clashed with minister Lorry Sant. But there came a time when he collaborated with him in the planning of the restoration of the old Knights' Hall to bring about the magnificent Mediterranean Centre.

Then political fate played one of its grim jokes on Iċ-Ċumpaqq. The PN wrested power from the MLP in the 1987 general election, but he was not elected. Had he been successful that time too, Eddie Fenech Adami would surely have appointed him in his first Cabinet.

He did contest successfully again in 1992, but opportunity had passed him by. Carm Lino was not included in Fenech Adami's second Cabinet, but served (once again) as his side's parliamentary whip. He failed to be elected in 1996 and that was where his political career ended.

That meant that our parliamentary political career overlapped in only one legislature, that of 1992-96, since I did not contest the election of 1971 or 1976. But our common name ensured that we were entwined more often than that.

In 1971, when I moved to Oxford to read politics and economics in early autumn, I soon received a letter from a hotelier in Malta. He went on about how much he had enjoyed my company on his yacht, suggesting we should do it again. By the way, he added, you left your overcoat on the yacht - where can I send it to you?

My family had come with me to Oxford. When I passed on the letter to my wife to read, she was not amused, either by its contents or my giggling. She was not aware I had spent a day on a yacht before we left for Oxford. I hastily brought her up-to-date about a gentleman of politics who happened to bear the same name as me. When the hotelier received my letter and replied, his blushing was reflected in his written words.

Back in Malta after I had graduated, one evening the phone rang.

- Is-sur Spiteri? the voice on the other side asked.

- Yes, I replied.

- 'emm, hummed the caller, when can we conclude regarding the garages I built for you.

I immediately cottoned on.

- If I had the garages I would gladly conclude, I told the caller. But, it's not me you want. You probably wish to talk to il-perit (the architect) Spiteri.

- Yes.

That straightened out, I recalled the yacht mix-up, smiled and put both out of my mind.

Several months later, answering the phone I was faced with a question:

- Is-sur Spiteri? Can we conclude on those garages?

The voice and the question struck an easy memory chord.

- Haven't I told you already, I said, that it's not me you want, but il-perit Spiteri?

- I know, said the caller forlornly, I thought maybe it was you, and that you could clear the matter up for me.

I smiled to myself at both the fresh mix-up and the interesting logic of the caller.

Between 1992 and 1996 iċ-Ċumpaqq and I had a very good relationship. At times I was worried for him, the excited way he rushed to marshal his troops as the Nationalist whip, and the earnestness with which he made his occasional interventions in the House. We shared a bit of stress-easing time recounting to each other instances of mistaken identity - he had his own quota of calls, with the caller thinking s/he was speaking to me, and not always joyously so.

Then we happened to be in Brussels together at a meeting of the EU-Malta Joint Parliamentary Committee. The two delegations stayed at the same hotel. One evening, while having a very late drink with my colleagues, a receptionist came up to me, with an urgent message to call home. Worried at what might have been up I rushed to call my wife. In a sleepy voice she asked me what was I talking about - she hadn't phoned.

I realised that the Spiteri mix-up was acting on the Brussels euro-stage as well.

Now there will be no more mix-ups. The gentle gentleman Carmel Lino Spiteri has gone to his final rest. Far less gentle, and probably less politically gentlemanly at times, I play out whatever time is left to me, wishing I resembled iċ-Ċumpaqq in much more than our name.

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