Guido de Marco during the interdiction
The flamboyant, former President of the Republic is not one to hide his light under a bushel. And his friendship with political opponent and Labour MP Joe Micallef Stafrace is no exception.
“We will always remain close friends,” Guido de Marco says about his friendship with the Labour politician, who in 1961 was a member of the MLP executive that received the interdiction from the Maltese curia.
“It was too much,” de Marco says about the church’s decree. “Although the church was rightly reacting, it was too heavy.”
With a sense of escalation characterising the heady days of the early sixties, de Marco says the language used by both sides had been far from diplomatic. The strong convictions held by both Archbishop Michael Gonzi and Labour leader Dom Mintoff did not help to ease tensions.
“They were alike – headstrong personalities who believed that they had to use extreme measures to get their point across.”
de Marco and Micallef Stafrace were atypical bosom buddies in turbulent political times. Their friendship stood strong in the face of adversity. As a real friend would do, de Marco walked in when the rest of the world walked out. When Micallef Stafrace and his spouse were shunned by some on their wedding day, de Marco attended the reception formally with his partner Violet.
The strong sense of solidarity might seem peculiar in the circumstances. But as older politicians are keen to point out, politics was conducted in a more gentlemanly manner. “A person qualifies as a gentleman when he stands by you even when the going is not so good,” de Marco says.
Affectionately dubbed “staffy”, de Marco says Micallef Stafrace was moderate by convictions. They similarly acknowledge life is not a matter of “black or white – there is often a lot of grey in-between.” Micallef Stafrace concurs that the ideological cleavage never prevented them from “substantially agreeing on various levels.”
Micallef Stafrace is evidently fond of de Marco, the man who was not “simply a fair-weather friend.” Although numerous politicians were against the interdiction because they knew that it was not a theological matter, nobody opposed the decree publicly.
The two got to know each other at university and their friendship was tested as far back as 1959 when Micallef Stafrace was jailed after losing a libel case. Governor Robert Laycock had taken offence for a tongue-in-cheek cartoon published as a reaction to the temporary suspension of a ban on village feasts. The cartoon published by ‘Is-Sebh’ when Micallef Stafrace was editor, portrayed the perspiring governor holding a bottle of gin whilst ridding piggyback on revellers at a festa.
De Marco had accompanied Micallef Stafrace to the law courts and had waited with him until he was carted off to jail for four days. The guilty verdict was delivered by Magistrate Giovanni Refalo and confirmed on appeal by Judge William Harding, for “vilifying the governor” on 7 January, 1959.
Micallef Stafrace’s mother and fiancée Yvonne were anxiously waiting at home, when they received a phone call from de Marco who wanted to inform them of the verdict first hand. He wanted to reassure them that “Staffy” was cheerful and courageous. It was a political issue for which the negative verdict would not demean him in any way.
Soon after Micallef Stafrace would ask de Marco to allow him to spend his year of practice at his law firm. de Marco consented, and so Micallef Stafrace obtained his warrant. “Both Refalo and Harding attended my graduation reception, as obviously did Guido,” Micallef Stafrace recalls.