Nice guy Karmenu. But Mifsud Bonnici as PM was a fiasco

No matter what the obituaries will say, as a politician Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici was a fiasco, and he presided over a tumultuous period of political violence

Former prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici
Former prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici

The former Labour prime minister Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who passed away this week at 89, clearly benefited from a general consensus about who he was a man: a gentleman, exemplary, honest, unassuming, kind, and affable... all words that befit the humanity with which, it seems, he was disposed, especially in his outlook towards the Maltese working-class. 

Alas, there is a vast gap in perception between the private Mifsud Bonnici and the politician that was to be hand-picked by Dom Mintoff as his designate-leader, second-in-command, and ‘interregnum’ prime minister in preparation for the 1987 election... and I find it very hard to treat the two personas, as two different people. 

The truth is that Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici – despite his apparent Christian piousness and socialist affirmation – was unsuitable for politics. It is a truth as clear as that. 

He had no charisma for the job, and perhaps even because of that, equally shorn of any need for ambition or vision, with the pitfalls of personal corruption that such qualities might beget. Yes he was ‘honest’, but that is not always something that makes effective politics. 

Indeed, I’d say he lacked any clarity in the way he thought. He was dangerously anchored in clichés of ‘us and them’, he fomented fictitious scenarios over fact-based politics, and he was unable to read the times. His shrill sermons to the public, very often outlandish ramblings, were all we could get from Mifsud Bonnici. 

For in reality, he was just Dom Mintoff’s pawn. In this unassuming lawyer to the General Workers Union, an unmarried Christian man devoted to God and untouched by the sins of the flesh (interestingly, very much unlike the debauched Mintoff), the fiery Labour patriarch found the ideal successor – someone he could influence and control after his departure. Not one of the contenders from within his Cabinet, but his imposed choice for designate-leader, deputy PM and finally prime minister after announcing his semi-departure from politics following the 1981 election, when Labour regained power with less votes but enough seats for a constitutional mandate. 

For even after 1984’s ascent to power for Mifsud Bonnici, Mintoff was still pulling the strings, barking orders from his personal office at the House of Four Winds in Valletta. He had manouvered it rather well – picking a low-profile lawyer specialising in industrial relations for the GWU to scotch the leadership ambitions of Lorry Sant and other errant ministers; Mintoff feared they would take over Labour, and with their own criminal associations, lead the party further astray. 

But Mifsud Bonnici turned out to be a hopeless prime minister, with little appreciation of how his words and his decisions had an influence on the rest of the country. He was unable to be vigilant with his statements in public, often energising those thugs from the Labour Party to take the law into their hands. 

During his tenure, the forces of law and order, and the institutions continued to deteriorate and he neither had the gravitas nor the authority to halt the mayhem around him. 

Only months into his premiership in 1984, Malta Drydocks workers ransacked and vandalised the offices of the Curia after a demonstration at which Mifsud Bonnici was present and did nothing to calm the thugs at the demo. It was not a turning point, but confirmation that the same history of violence under the Mintoff years would continue unabated with Mifsud Bonnici as premier. 

Mifsud Bonnici always made it a point a point to blame the Nationalists for creating the right climate for violence and even accusing the Opposition, and I quote his precise words, as “violent”. Certainly, nobody is without blemish for what happened in the 1980s, including the bomb attacks on state property and police stations. But it was Mifsud Bonnici who was prime minister then.  

The messy reform of the Church schools continued to reaffirm Mifsud Bonnici’s ability to propagate chaos without even trying. It was a period where many Maltese youths were displaced and confused by the uncertainty in education. His role in the EgyptAir hijack chaos showed the inability of a man propelled into a position that was too lofty for him to manage. 

And though the PN in opposition were far from virginal, nothing could justify the Labour administration’s failures. The police, under Labour in the 1980s, were largely motivated by their political leanings. 

At the time, many people of my age who were left-wing and could not associate with the Nationalist Party found themselves alienated by Mifsud Bonnici’s mediocre leadership. Not only did he conjure up fears based on pure fiction – such as linking AIDS with the European Economic Community! – but he fanned a foreign policy which brought us closer to dictators such as Libya’s Gaddafi and a politics of near-autarky. 

Political division and tribalism was already a problem in the 1980s but with Mifsud Bonnici it became far worse. It culminated in the murder of Raymond Caruana in a Nationalist Party club in December 1986, a murder that continued to raise the tensions in Maltese society and across local communities.  

Mifsud Bonnici’s failure in controlling Police Commissioner Lawrence Pullicino and the Special Mobile Unit, with a complete disregard for basic human rights, culminated in the collusion of the police with Labour thugs as was the case at Tal-Barrani in Żejtun in 1986. 

Even with Lorry Sant, the minister responsible for what was a free-for-all in building permits, Mifsud Bonnici was simply too tame or powerless to take any action. 

In spite of his political failures, a drive to employ thousands with the State before the 1987 May election nearly cost Eddie Fenech Adami his chance of winning the election. In the end the PN won the election with a slim majority. 

I remember that period very well: I was in my early 20s, unwilling to vote for the Nationalist Party but angry and frustrated with a Labour Party that was rudderless and insensitive to the sufferings of so many people. 

After 1987, Mifsud Bonnici became an ardent anti-European spouting stupidities and wacky arguments about neutrality and EU accession, hosted by fringe TV stations such as Smash. Well after 1992, the former PM was not taken seriously anymore. 

When it comes to honouring politicians and public figures in Malta, there is always the tendency to adulate and praise the individual and forget the blunders and sins. The same applies to Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, who will be remembered as a serious and competent lawyer, a very nice guy with a gentle heart. But no matter what the obituaries will say, as a politician he was a fiasco, and he presided over a tumultuous period of political violence. 

It hurts me that the Labour Party had to pass through this period, but reneging on history and irrefutable facts is not the remit of a journalist. It is for the revisionists and apologists.