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A progressive MintoffYana

Dom Mintoff’s daughter is a candidate for what Labour leader Joseph Muscat calls his movement of progressives and moderates. Yana Mintoff Bland tells Christian Peregin she is the progressive part.

You spent most of your life out of the country. What made you leave?

We need to think about where capitalism is going today. When you don’t have a good trade union movement, you see conditions deteriorate.

Work opportunities and education. When I first left I was very young and there was the interdiction of the Labour leaders. I couldn’t go to secondary school here without going to a Church school and since our family was being persecuted, my parents thought it best for me to go abroad.

What was life like as Dom Mintoff’s daughter? Did you feel privileged or victimised?

I was like any other girl, really. In my current house visits, my constituents say they remember me running around the bastions barefoot. I was a rather wild Maltese girl. But I remember seeing girls my age begging, so that affected me...

The poverty?

Yes. We worked hard in our household but we weren’t in poverty.

Did you manage to have a normal father-daughter relationship? Did you see Dom Mintoff as a politician or a father?

Well, I can’t divide the two. My father was on a mission to help the Maltese people so I knew him as a determined person doing something. We always had politicians at home who played with me while they were waiting. But my father always found time for the family. Every day we would go for a walk together or swimming. These were the most wonderful moments.

What mark have your travels left on you?

You’re always framed by your experiences. I’ve worked a lot with students who were not successful at school. I’ve worked mostly in the fields of education but also political activism... human rights and peace. And yes, I’ve learnt a great deal. There’s good and bad in every place and every person. You look for the good and try to do good...

My father always told me to find my own path and I did. I think it was important for me not to take advantage of his successes, to make my own path and not piggyback on his legacy, you could say.

You have reacted to the latest documentary about your father, Dear Dom. You took offence to the fact that it was written in the form of a letter and yet was not given to your father first for him to respond. Had you never heard of the concept of an open letter?

Well my father is here and very up-to-date with events, so an open letter addressed openly – not to a particular person – and a letter to someone who is still up-to-date with events, are two different things.

Photo: Matthew MirabelliPhoto: Matthew Mirabelli

The filmmaker, Pierre Ellul, had tried to make contact with your father but got nowhere.

He says he tried some years back to contact my dad. And he probably did. I think he tried to fax him from England.

Your dad was never very accessible for interviews.

No.

So do you think he would have responded if the filmmaker tried harder?

He might not. But I think some respect is due and as a sign of respect he should have given the family a preview. We had to contact him.

But then he accommodated you and even changed the original date when you couldn’t make it.

Yes, but still.

Do you think people should boycott the film?

It’s totally up to them. Personally, as I said, I think it’s shallow and it’s part of Nationalist propaganda.

Is your father going to see it?

We’ll see. He hasn’t really mentioned it. He just asked about the right of reply.

You were also upset that public funds were used for the film’s production...

Yes, how many? No one knows...

The figure is about €54,000.

Well, it’s not peanuts.

Another four films were also allocated money by the Malta Film Fund. If you were in government administering a fund like this, would you not allow films of a political nature to benefit?

I would think you have to set up a board with people from both sides.

Labourites and Nationalists?

Yes. I’ve always worked with committees. I find them really good. When I ran entities or a school I would use committees and get an objective view in the end.

And do you think if this went through such a process the money would not have been allocated?

I don’t know but that’s how I would work. I would also work with a lot of transparency. The fact that you had to dig out the number...

Well, I asked the Office of the Prime Minister.

Good job, because transparency in any organisation is very important. You have to have accountability. It’s very important with real democracy to have that kind of accountability and I see that as a major failing today in Malta. For instance, the government never declared it was giving an extra €7,000 to its people.

The duty allowance to Cabinet, you mean?

Yes, it’s that kind of leadership that encourages other people to be dishonest. And it comes from the top, where you have to have very high standards. I really think we’re on an unsustainable path in Malta.

Going back to the film, many young people who were brought up to view your father as a tyrant saw a different side to the man: a charismatic negotiator with a sense of humour. Some said it was too lenient. How does it feel to hear people say that when you thought it was disgusting?

I didn’t say it was disgusting, but what I think happened to the younger generation is they have been fed a pack of lies about the party. To say he is a tyrant is a lie. He believes in human rights. He can get enraged, yes. But even The Times has consistently used labels like dictator and tyrant. So I think it’s good now that people are looking at things in more detail.

So in a way this film helps us revisit history and that’s a good thing.

It’s always good to revisit history.

You said you were seeking legal advice. What did your lawyers tell you?

That’s no comment.

You wouldn’t like to tell us if you’re going to take action or not?

No. No comment.

Turning to your new political career, what made you get into politics now, after so long?

Let’s look at the facts. We’ve got 38 per cent of our students failing school. That’s terribly high. They don’t have a future ahead of them. We have one of the highest illiteracy rates in Europe. We can’t just sit back and let that go on, it’s scandalous.

At the moment I’m going around Valletta, to areas like Due Balli and Mandraġġ. Everyone is very welcoming and I must say their homes are spotless. But the conditions are horrendous. In some cases it’s like we’re living in a Third World country.

Do you think nothing has changed?

Many things have changed but now things are changing for the worse. The gap between rich and poor is growing. And it’s like people don’t care. It’s like we’re losing our soul.

So did Joseph Muscat approach you or did you approach him about getting involved in the Labour Party?

We talked about certain issues of mutual concern.

Who extended the invitation?

It was through friends and then he invited me to come to the conference. I think he’s an exceptional leader, very good at uniting people.

How did your father react when you told him you would be contesting the election?

He was very pleased.

Former Labour leader Alfred Sant had sidelined the Mintoffians. How did you feel about that? How did your father feel when he was called a traitor? Is the hurt still there?

It was a very sad time.

Even for you?

For everyone in the party. You don’t like to see a party disintegrate like that.

Now things seem to be changing and many Mintoffians are returning into the heart of the Labour Party. Do you think Dr Muscat is being truer to Labour’s history? How do you feel about the fact that people like you are being welcomed with open arms?

It’s very good. He’s attracting many young, good intelligent people, and yes, more Mintoffjani, so I think it’s good.

Obviously this irks some people too.

But I think he’s good at steering the boat. As you know there’s a civil war going on in the Nationalist Party, but that’s democracy.

What differences and similarities do you see between the Labour Party today and the one your father led?

I think the central beliefs are there: that the majority of people need to have respect and the majority of people are the working class. So I think that’s what unites us – that we care about the majority of people having a decent life and not falling into poverty and ignorance.

In other ways it’s different. Just having young people demanding civil rights, like the gay movement and divorce movement, makes a big difference. When I was active in the 1980s I would say things like that but I was the only one.

In fact, some people who know you told me you are “as liberal as they come”. How liberal are you?

When I ran my school in Texas I allowed students full participation. Most had been bullied or were particularly clever and did not fit in the usual school situation. I wanted to use a creative model, so after full discussions, we had a situation where the students could vote for the board of trustees. That way they played a part in the running of the school. Obviously, the students had guidelines because you have to have discipline. But that is an example of how liberal I am.

But in the 1980s, you said you were the only person talking about divorce and gay rights. We’re still discussing these issues here. Do you think you are too liberal for Malta?

No, I feel I am very much a fish in my water. I’m not really representing those particular cases so much as the need for the working class in Malta to have good conditions at work, pensioners to have liveable pensions, social services being liveable... Of course, you want to overcome laziness and fraud, but to have a decent and high quality of life is something we can do.

That is something all politicians say. It’s a question of whether one can actually do them.

Well, I’m used to making a difference.

What I meant is that you’ve fought for causes such as women’s rights. So how do you feel about issues like reproductive rights and abortion, for instance?

The main thing I feel about women in this country is the problem of domestic violence. I think it is scandalous that we have the highest incidence of domestic violence in Europe.

What, according to you, leads to it?

I think it comes from the fact that we’ve lost our values. I think it’s to do with the justice system, that the perpetrators are not held responsible quickly enough.

You didn’t answer my question about abortion.

I think it’s a big debate. I couldn’t answer it in a word. It’s a big debate.

Is it something you feel we need to discuss though? At the moment we seem to be discussing these moral issues a lot.

Yes, we should discuss. Why not? I believe in a good discussion based on facts and balance. But with all these rights, there are responsibilities too. We need to think about where capitalism is going today. When you don’t have a good trade union movement, you see conditions deteriorate. People work really long hours, children are abandoned and then you get single parents. With extra rights, like divorce, we need to have education about the responsibilities because children are our future.

Are there issues in which you are not in agreement with Dr Muscat, though? He believes in civil partnerships but not gay marriage, for instance.

I didn’t really know his position on that. We haven’t discussed it.

Do you feel you fit into what Dr Muscat calls a movement of progressives and moderates?

Well, I’m very progressive.

Not so much moderate?

I’m passionate, I would say.

Progressive seems to mean many things to many different people. Your comments about the film did not sound very progressive.

Am I not allowed my opinion?

But you implied the filmmaker should be taken to court.

I didn’t. A journalist (on TVM) asked me what I’m doing and I said I’m consulting a lawyer. I’m not a lawyer, I’m an economist, so I have no idea.

So you don’t feel action should be taken?

I have no idea. I don’t think it is good historical research and I’ve said that. The interviewer asked me if I’m doing anything and I said I’m talking to a lawyer.

As an activist, you were not particularly moderate. Once you were arrested and fined for hurling manure in the House of Commons. What was that about?

That was about human rights. I knew people who were subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment in the prisons in Northern Ireland who wanted a united island free of military forces. I was particularly close to a mother who had two sons and one husband in prison. I won’t go through their conditions because they were horrendous.

We had blanket protests where she would dress up in a blanket because the prisoners did not have clothes. So we would raise awareness by setting up meetings with MPs and journalists.

If the issue had been addressed at the time in a democratic and reasonable way it would have avoided people like Bobby Sands (imprisoned IRA member) dying of a hunger strike. It was a desperate situation where hundreds of people were imprisoned under British rule in Northern Ireland. That’s what motivated me.

So you don’t regret it?

No.

Meanwhile, in Malta, human rights were being breached, arguably by your father’s government. Did you feel unable to react in the way you did in the UK? Or do you feel that human rights were not being breached at all?

I would need more facts on that.

Watch excerpts of the interview.

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