Abela’s reference to Um El Faroud means only one thing, really. Nothing has changed since 1995

And that, of course, is also another good reason for Abela to have thought twice, before making that particular comparison in the first place. For what is he actually telling us, anyway, by pointing towards Eddie Fenech Adami’s perceived ‘mishandling’ of that 30-year-old calamity?

The wreckage of the Um El Faroud in 1995 after a blast killed nine workers (Photo: Court Archive)
The wreckage of the Um El Faroud in 1995 after a blast killed nine workers (Photo: Court Archive)

Ever notice how Maltese politicians (especially Prime Ministers) tend to always deflect criticism, by reminding us of all the times the opposing party had been just as ‘guilty’ of similar shortcomings, back in their day?

Sure you have! I mean, it’s a little hard not to notice stuff like that, isn’t it? Take Eddie Fenech Adami, for instance… oh, and before you all pounce on me, for picking on a prime minister who’s been retired from politics for almost exactly 20 years: kindly note that Robert Abela just did exactly that, in Parliament this week. (In other words, he tried deflecting some of the blame, for some of his own mistakes, on a man who hasn’t actually been in power – or even active in politics, for that matter – since way, way back in 2003…)

But one step at the time. As it happens, I remember the EFA era rather well: given that I was roughly 18 when he first became prime minister; and would spend roughly the next 16 years observing the actions of his government as a journalist. And one thing I can certainly tell you is that: down to almost the very last day of his premiership, Eddie Fenech Adami consistently deflected all criticism of Malta’s ‘sluggish’ economy, by pointing towards decisions taken by his immediate predecessor (the late Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, if you’ll remember.)

One aspect, in particular, kept cropping up at the time (and believe it or not, still occasionally does to this day): KMB’s decision, before the 1987 election, to over-inflate the public service with around 8,000, newly-hired employees.

Now: it is, of course, a little late to be pointing out a teeny-weenie- little flaw in that reasoning (though I did write a few articles about it, way back when). But because Abela’s comments have suddenly made the issue relevant again: here goes.

There were at least three problems, with Eddie’s habit of blaming Karmenu for his own economic mismanagement (four, if you include the one I just implied right now).

1)    While the Labour government was obviously wrong, to embark on a job-dishing, public-spending, election-eve extravaganza in 1987… the Nationalist opposition had been equally misguided, to write a personalised letter to all 8,000 of those employees, guaranteeing the continuation of their public-sector employment under a PN government (and thus, the perpetuation of the selfsame problem).

2)    Eddie Fenech Adami had ample time, between 1987 and 2003, to compensate for this shortfall by ‘expanding’, ‘diversifying’ or otherwise just ‘managing the economy better’. So by blaming the preceding government, all he really did was admit to his own inability to actually improve on Labour’s record, himself.

3)    The whole point of even electing the Nationalists to begin with, in 1987, was precisely to adopt a different approach to economic/political governance… including (but not limited to) ‘rectifying the same past mistakes, that Eddie’s government was still complaining about all those years later’ [Note: another case in point – and probably a better example – would be how both Labour and PN governments blamed each other for turning Air Malta into a giant, election-winning ‘cash-cow’… and then, also for the untimely demise of that airline: despite having brought it about, themselves…]

But oh well. You get the general picture. It’s never wise, at the end of the day, to shift the blame for your own mistakes, onto the people you yourself have actually replaced (on the very specific promise of ‘doing a better job’, remember?) It sort of instantly reminds us all, that…

… hey, wait! I hadn’t even got to the part about Robert Abela and the 1995 Um El Faroud tragedy yet, had I? Ok, tell you what: to make matters slightly less complicated, I’ll just reproduce a few relevant news snippets to bring you all up to speed.

“A bizarre debate erupted this week after Prime Minister Robert Abela harked back to an almost 30-year-old tragedy during a speech delivered on Sunday.

“Abela was speaking about the recently published inquiry into the death of construction worker Jean Paul Sofia when he drew a parallel with another workplace-related tragedy, the death of nine dockyard workers in an explosion in early 1995.

“Abela said that at the time no public inquiry took place, and although the government of the day assumed responsibility for the incident it only paid compensation to the victims’ relatives after dragging them through the courts.”

With me so far? Good. Meanwhile, observers promptly chipped in to remind the Prime Minister that there HAD, in fact, been an inquiry into Um El Faroud (over and above the standard magisterial one, naturally); and while it wasn’t exactly ‘public’, in the sense we understand today… it was NOT (as Abela implied) ‘held behind closed doors’; and nor were its findings ‘kept under wraps’.

But let’s not get lost in the niceties of what may-or-may-not have actually happened. Let’s just stick with the question we asked earlier about Eddie Fenech Adami (and only, may I remind you once more, because Robert Abela decided to bring the matter up again, unprompted, all these years later).

Is it wise, for the current Prime Minister to defend his own (previous) reluctance to hold a public inquiry into the Jean Paul Sofia case… by pointing towards the lack of any ‘public inquiry’, into an unrelated incident that happened over 30 years ago?

Erm… not really, I would say. (Or at least, not in any way I can immediately see myself.) Because just like the other case I mentioned earlier: it only forces to actually compare those two incidents… and that, in turn, only forces us to consider how little has actually changed, in the intervening three decades.

But let’s get the obvious differences out of the way first. For those of you who might not remember: ‘Um El Faroud’ refers to an accident that took place at the Malta Dockyard in February 1995: when an underdeck explosion claimed the lives of nine dockyard workers. But while it’s safe to say that it represents the single worst (non-wartime) calamity to have ever struck that particular shipyard… it was – and mercifully, still remains – a single, one-off (and hopefully, never-to-be-repeated’) tragedy.

Simply put: while I have no doubt that there have been plenty of other, less immediately fatal accidents, at the same workplace over the years... I don’t ever remember an entire ‘epidemic’, of ships suddenly ‘blowing up while under repair at the Yard’, taking place at any time throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and beyond. (And trust me: that sort of thing is kind of hard to just ‘keep under wraps’, you know…)

Clearly, then: what we were looking at, with the ‘Um El Faroud’ explosion, was a mysterious, one-off accident which merited an immediate, thorough investigation.

In actual fact, it got two: the magisterial one, and a specialised ‘Maritime Inquiry’: both designed to, a) determine the precise cause; and b) assign criminal/moral culpability, where applicable.

But precisely because it was such a unique, unheard-of eventuality: there wasn’t necessarily any perceived need (and hence, any public demand) for a ‘public inquiry’: which, by way of contrast, also extends to investigating the SYSTEMIC issues, that might give rise to the accident… and which, by definition, might cause MORE of such accidents, in future.

If nothing else: this, at least, is one thing that the Jean Paul Sofia incident has certainly taught us, about the difference between ‘public’ and ‘non-public’ inquiries. The latter are concerned only with ‘how/why THAT particular accident happened’… the former, with the whys and wherefores of ALL comparable scenarios, in the same (or analogous) industry sector.

For this reason alone, you cannot realistically compare the government’s 1995 response to the Um El Faroud tragedy, with Abela’s response to what can only be described as an EPIDEMIC of fatal constriction-related accidents (caused, in turn, by a ‘total system failure’ when it comes to regulation, and enforcement).

For let’s face it, folks: the tragedy that claimed the life of Jean-Paul Sofia, in December 2022, was hardly the first of its kind to have ever occurred in these islands. On the contrary: there had been at least two other construction-related fatalities, under entirely comparable circumstances, over the preceding two years… and – more incredibly still – there have been others (non-fatal, this time) even AFTER Sofia’s death… with the most recent having taken place just weeks before the publication of the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry report!

In other words: unlike the case with Um El Faroud, there was – and still is – an unacceptably high level of suspiciously ‘similar’ construction-related accidents, taking place in this country of ours: and this brings up yet another reason to insist on both holding a public inquiry, to start with; and then – perhaps more importantly – on ENFORCING the inquiry’s recommendations, on the rare occasions when we do actually hold one.

And that, of course, is also another good reason for Abela to have thought twice, before making that particular comparison in the first place. For what is he actually telling us, anyway, by pointing towards Eddie Fenech Adami’s perceived ‘mishandling’ of that 30-year-old calamity?

As far as I can see, it’s one thing, and one thing only: that Malta’s standards of ‘regulation, and law- enforcement’, have not actually improved one iota, since the early 1990s… despite the fact that Robert Abela’s government has now had ample time, to ‘rectify the mistakes he now complains about’, in the 11 whole years the Labour Party has been in power.

Just saying, that’s all…