Does it all go away with just a sorry?

Scicluna’s gesture last week is certainly commendable, but does it erase any of that anger for the Church’s actions in the 1960s?

I am sure there were others who noticed the solitary figure of Archbishop Charles Scicluna on All Souls’ Day paying homage to those who had been denied a proper Catholic burial because of their association with the Labour party during the 1960s.

This was the time of the infamous Interdett when the Maltese Catholic Church under Mikiel Gonzi imposed its own fatwa against all active Labourites and readers of Labour newspapers. To be a member of the Labour executive and read a Labour newspaper was declared a mortal sin, and not renouncing that mortal sin meant being denied important sacraments.

Scicluna’s gesture last week is certainly commendable, but does it erase any of that anger for the Church’s actions in the 1960s? There are memories that simply do not go away by blessing these graves, especially when the Scicluna, a ‘political’ archbishop, has in the past given clues that may not have helped much to bridge both sides of the political divide. It is one thing to have the eloquent and intelligent archbishop perform for the general public to see, but one has to dig deeper into all that has been said, even if it is to understand why Scicluna has not been a much-loved figure for certain Labourites.

The big debate here should be about how tribalism has riven Malta, to the extent that we can find the hatred that was apparent in the Interdett, bleeding into other forms of divide, most notably class and part-political. The Interdett dictated that Labour voters would not find their place in heaven; but Labour voters then were also working-class people, families aspiring to a better standard of living, and believers in the emancipation of the masses from Gonzi’s will to retain the status quo.

Unfortunately, Mintoff’s iron fist after 1971 meant that what should have prompted an evolution in Maltese civic values to replace the ravages of the Interdett, never happened as the disaster of the 1980s clearly shows. Malta was locked in its tribal politics, and perhaps, all that bad blood is still being passed on from one generation to the other.

This is a small nation which has its fair share of tribalism and which finds its roots in the long years of political feuds, bickering and violence. Labourites of the old school will forever associate the Nationalist party with the Church and there will be Nationalists who will always remember the violence and crime that took place in the years Dom Mintoff and Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici held sway. Everyone has a story to tell and most will tell you their story and their experience and make it abundantly clear that they have no time for forgiving or forgetting what the other side did.

I do not really blame anyone, but we cannot say that everyone has the same approach in tackling the duopoly problem.

Take Alfred Sant: he attempted to address this state of affairs but in the process was misconstrued and painted as a monster by his adversaries. Sant was obstinately in favour of keeping those people with deep Nationalist roots at the helm of agencies or parastatal companies irrespective of their political colour. And the same applied to the police and those who ran it. When he took over as leader of the Labour party, he ordered those former police officers who had been allegedly involved in violent acts in the 1980s to be removed from the security detail at the party. Those that had been tolerated by the PN and then became turncoats were side-tracked. Sant was not only unwavering but consistent, and was unwilling to take Labour back to its inward-looking economic policies.

Sant had one fundamental flaw apart from a lack of charisma and his decision to freeze Malta’s application to the European Union. It was his one-seat majority which was constantly under threat by the father figure of the Labour party, Dom Mintoff, who made Sant’s life a misery by constantly ridiculing him and hitting out at his privatisation policies.

Sant’s election campaign on the removal of VAT and the relaxation of hunting regulations in 1996 saw him beat Eddie Fenech Adami. It was a short-lived government that buckled under internal disquiet and unpopularity, as the Nationalist party regrouped and all the independent media zoned in on Sant to dance to the painful lament of the Mimtoff demagogue. Overnight, this hate figure for so much of the Maltese middle class, the media commentariat and of course the PN, became their darling. Nobody cared as long as Labour could be deposed by this fortuitous short-circuiting of power. It was the long, hot summer of 1998, when Mintoff became the talk of town, making long sermons in the House, which everyone would listen too while stealing glimpses of the Word Cup being played out on the TV screen.

I was deputy editor at The Malta Independent at the time. I cannot forget Pierre Portelli, then Net TV’s star, catching up with Mintoff and taking uncensored sound-bites from the angry man. It was manna from heaven as Mintoff tore the Labour party to shreds and brought the whole party to its knees.  Fenech Adami, who had only recently thought that his political career was over, bounced back. The rest of the media, TV hosts and editors, pranced around Mintoff to elicit more soundbites. Nobody pitched any questions about the ugly past he presided over. Everyone suddenly forgot about the bad old days.

Even some Labour activists, such as Labour’s own former deputy leader George Abela, stood by Mintoff. Abela would later be made President by Lawrence Gonzi, a gesture supposed to imply that the PN was reaching out to Labour. It was meant to take Abela out of any potential future leadership bid, viewed then by the PN as a voice of moderate Labour reason who could win government. Inadvertently, they had done a favour to Joseph Muscat, the new Labour leader, by removing his chief rival from any mischief-making position.

Anyway, we all know how 1998 ended up. Eddie Fenech Adami was re-elected and he led Malta into the European Union and the rest is history.

People always seem to forget their hang-ups at that point in time when the enemy of their enemy becomes their friend. Everything has a reason, and most of the time, it can be a logical but also irrational one, one where we are willing to sacrifice our credibility when it comes to power and self-preservation. Perhaps the best example of this was the surprise reaction some ten days ago, when the Labour candidate Cyrus Engerer expressed his views on the planning permit awarded to developer Joe Portelli for his Qala property.

I was momentarily pleased to see that Engerer, no great crusader for the environment, had risen to front the green lobby. Only until I was reminded by a fellow Labourite, a true ‘soldier of steel’ (suldat tal-azzar) that Engerer’s outcry was rooted in his dislike for Joe Portelli, who had chosen to openly support Josianne Cutajar in the MEP elections… even going as far as putting up a giant poster of Cutajar on one of his Quaint hotels.

There you go: never take anything at face value. If only it was that simple.

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