Sorry may not be ‘the hardest word’… but it’s a good start

And while you could always interpret that as a subtle reminder that the Caruana Galizia family (quite rightly) expects more than ‘just an apology’ from Robert Abela – in its own words, it also wants ‘full accountability’ 

Right, let’s get the obvious out of the way. I don’t think anyone in his right mind – and yes, I sometimes do tend to number myself in that category – would have been at all ‘surprised’ by the outcome of the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder this week.

Least of all, I imagine, Prime Minister Robert Abela himself. After all, it was only last September that Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield had (somewhat aggressively) questioned the board’s impartiality in Parliament: arguing that “the inquiry was allowed to turn into a political exercise”, and accusing the presiding judges themselves of having “ulterior motives”.

Just a few weeks earlier, Abela himself had attempted to impose a time-limit onto proceedings… all the while, expressing “reservations about the way in which the inquiry is failing to keep to the terms of reference given to it”.

Nor did it help much, that both those arguments seem to have been lifted directly from Joseph Muscat’s own song-sheet. (Muscat himself went on to testify before the same inquiry in December; and after accusing the judges of having ‘failed miserably’… he likewise complained that the inquiry itself had “deteriorated into a political exercise”.)

Clearly, then, the Labour government – first under Joseph Muscat; and later under Robert Abela (who had, after all, promised ‘continuity’ from his predecessor) – was bracing itself for what it knew all along was going to be a guilty verdict.

And… well, there could be a very simple explanation for that, too.

For even if we accept – just for the sake of argument – that there may indeed have been valid reasons to doubt the board’s impartiality… it still doesn’t change the objective truth of the inquiry’s main findings themselves.

There can be no real denying, for instance, that there was – and some might say, still is - an “atmosphere of impunity, generated by the highest echelons at the heart of Castille […] which, like an octopus, spread to other entities and regulators and the Police, leading to the collapse of rule of law.”

Even the simple fact that no prosecutions have ever taken place, all these years later, with regard to the Electogas corruption scandal (to name but one ‘sin of omission’, out of the many identified in that report)… it’s already enough to confirm yet another of the inquiry’s main conclusions: i.e., that “failure to [take action] sent a message that these people were not only able to act above the law without suffering the consequences, but also that they had the protection if not the blessing of the Prime Minister.”

Besides: it can’t exactly be a coincidence that this same ‘culture of impunity’ was also cited separately by the FATF, when giving its own reasons for grey-listing Malta last month.

Taken together, both those verdicts point in the same, rather unmistakable direction: that, for all the government of Malta’s cosmetic efforts to project the opposite impression, over the past 18 or so months… it has very clearly not done enough to iron out Malta’s glaring rule of law issues, once and for all.

The FATF can see this; the public inquiry board can see this; and so, too, can Robert Abela himself. So if his government was all along resigned to the inevitability of this latest, damning indictment… it was not because of any ‘bias’ on the part of the judges; but rather, because Robert Abela knew full well that his government was, in fact, ‘guilty as charged’.

And this, I suspect, is also the reason why Abela – like Joseph Muscat before him – had tried so hard to discredit the entire board of inquiry in the first place: so that he would be able to turn around, upon publication of the report, and tell us: “See? Just like I predicted, the entire exercise was politically motivated from the start… so what else could you possibly expect?” Etc., etc. (which, let’s face it, is pretty much how Robert Abela has always reacted to all previous indictments of his government: including the FATF grey-listing.)

Then again, however… well, this is the only part that I found truly ‘surprising’ – puzzling, even – about this latest development. Despite having invested so much in a strategy to pre-emptively defuse the impact of this explosive report… Robert Abela chose not to actually play that card, when the time came.

On the contrary: not only did he fully accept the inquiry’s damning conclusions – thereby tacitly admitting what his own government has been denying for years: i.e., that the Maltese state was indeed complicit (albeit indirectly) in Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder – but Robert Abela even apologised to the Caruana Galizia family (while hinting that he would consider financial compensation).

Now: to be brutally honest, under normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t even have mentioned that last detail at all. For when all is said and done (and sung)… Bernie Taupin clearly had no idea what he was on about, when he wrote the lyrics to Elton John’s hit single: ‘Sorry Is The Hardest Word’.

Under the present circumstances, I’d say it is actually the other way round. ‘Apologising to the Caruana Galizias’ was arguably the easiest way Robert Abela could possibly have responded: for one thing, because it costs him next to nothing at all, in political terms… (far less than, say, taking action against a popular Cabinet colleague)… and also because: well, it doesn’t exactly do very much to address the ‘culture of impunity’ either, does it?

And already, in fact, there is some evidence that – apology, or no apology – Abela doesn’t quite consider himself compelled to implement all those recommendations to begin with. In his parliamentary address, for instance, he even boasted that most, if not all, of the proposed institutional reforms have in fact already been undertaken: citing, among other things, the recent changes to the appointment of the judiciary, etc..

Besides: his own repeated claim that today’s ‘Maltese State’ is already very different from the one that it replaced in 2020, suggests that – to Robert Abela’s own mind, at least – there is actually very little left to do, in practical terms, to even implement those recommendations at all.

This in turn implies that Robert Abela may also be under the impression that his apology, on its own, will somehow be enough to satisfy all the criteria for national closure; and that – having now duly apologised - the whole issue will simply blow over, all of its own accord…

If so, however… well, I reckon he’s got another guess coming.

All the same, however: I still wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Robert Abela’s apology as a mere token gesture, or meaningless formality… if nothing else because – and quite frankly, this took me by surprise, too – the Caruana Galizia actually accepted the apology. And as far as I can see: that really does put a whole new perspective onto proceedings.

Not only does Robert Abela’s ‘mea culpa’ mark the first time that a Labour government official – and the Prime Minister, no less - has openly admitted to all those ‘shortcomings’ identified by the report; but – also for the first time – the entire country seems to have been given at least a distant glimpse… if not of a possible future closure; at least, what the whole ‘national healing process’ might actually end up looking like.

Admittedly, we still remain very, VERY far from reaching that target… but I, for one, detected – in both the tone of Abela’s apology itself; and also in the gracious (albeit conditional) way it was received by the Caruana Galizias – the possibility of a future rapprochement, of the kind that has to date always seemed quite… unimaginable, really.

And it looks I’m not the only one. Suddenly, the President of the Republic does not sound quite so naïve, or ‘out of touch with reality’, when he likewise expresses his belief that “this report can, and must, serve as the point of departure for a national healing process for the trauma this brutal assassination has precipitated since 2017.”

If you ask me, it is the word ‘can’ – far more than ‘must’ – that really stands out in that sentence. For the inquiry report itself not only spells out a practical blueprint for how those shortcomings might conceivably be addressed – but it also serves as the equivalent of a negotiating table, where both sides of the dispute can actually meet to thrash out their differences.

As Paul Caruana Galizia put it yesterday: “What’s important is that government really implements these reforms. It would be a shame if an independent inquiry’s recommendations are turned into a partisan cherry-picking exercise…”

And while you could always interpret that as a subtle reminder that the Caruana Galizia family (quite rightly) expects more than ‘just an apology’ from Robert Abela – in its own words, it also wants ‘full accountability’ – it still represents a roadmap, of sorts, to indicate precisely how the country really can conceivably close this dark chapter, once and for all, and finally move on.

And, let’s face it: it was only (quite literally) yesterday that… well… none of that really seemed possible at all…