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The British military presence - Joe Zahra

I refer to Karl Flores’s letter entitled ‘Malta’s Independence’ (October 8). I would not want to enter into polemics but I like to clarifycertain misconceptions. 

Flores wrote that the British had a military base on the island “for which they paid about £3 million annually, the Maltese government having had to pay back about £1 million, which meant Malta was receiving about £2 million a year from the British government”.

Under the financial agreement which was signed on Independence Day, Britain undertook to provide for a period of 10 years £50 million in aid to Malta – 75 per cent in  grants and 25 per cent in loans. This comes to £5 million a year. Not a single penny was paid back. Besides another £1 million were granted to Malta for  restoration projects.

On Independence Day Malta also signed a mutual defence agreement with the British government. The agreement entitled the British to use defence facilities in  Malta. But the Maltese government had to be consulted.

When in 1967 the British government unilaterally decided to reduce the size of the British military forces in Malta, the Maltese government led by George Borg Olivier invoked the Visiting Forces Act to harass the British Forces in Malta by refusing to let through Customs provisions for British personnel and military installations.

The British government was so upset with the Maltese government’s decision that on February 19, 1967, Patrick Gordon Walker, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, travelled to Malta and offered to suspend the reduction of force levels, provided the Maltese government ceased its policy of harassment of British Forces. An offer the Maltese Prime Minister refused until negotiations reached an acceptable outcome in March 1967.

Dom Mintoff, as a result of our Independence, renegotiated the financial agreement and took all the political and economic decisions he deemed fit

Flores refers to Dom Mintoff’s election in 1971 and his insistence for fresh talks on the British base and payments. He states that “after tough negotiations, London agreed to pay £21 million a year for seven years and Malta could build the proper infrastructure that kept it on its feet when the British left, as agreed, in 1979”.

Under the new agreement signed in  March 1972, Malta received £14 million in rent annually until 1979 and a further £7 million part grant and part loan from Nato countries.

Malta’s infrastructure was not built by the Labour government. In 1971 Mintoff’s Labour administration found a modern infrastructure: a new power station in Marsa, desalination plants to cope with the water supply problem and new telephone exchanges.

By 1987 the infrastructure was in shambles with an inadequate supply of electricity, not enough water and a Third-World telecommunications system. It was only thanks to a Nationalist government led by Eddie Fenech Adami that Malta built a new power station in Delimara, a number of reverse osmosis plants that could cope with the water needs of our islands and a state-of-the-art communication system. The electricity and water distribution systems were also modernised.

The defence agreement reached by the Nationalist government on the attainment of Independence was one for mutual defence. It was for the defence of Britain as well as for the defence of Malta. It had to expire in 1974.

The agreement reached by the Mintoff government was a rent agreement, which prolonged the British military presence in  Malta by five years.

These are the facts. When Malta attained Independence we were free to take our own decisions. Yes, we were truly independent. Malta joined the United Nations Organisation, the Commonwealth, the Council of Europe and signed an association agreement with the European Economic Community. On his part Mintoff, as a result of our Independence, renegotiated the financial agreement and took all the political and economic decisions he deemed fit. A future Nationalist government joined the European Union and the eurozone.

What we are today is all the fruit of Independence which, as the birthday of our nation, should be our only national day.

Joe Zahra is a former editor of the Nationalist Party daily In-Nazzjon Tagħna.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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