Divide et Impera: Ragonesi recalls PN during the interdiction – Part 4

From 2005: Part Four: Victor Ragonesi reminisces about the Nationalist Party’s role during the Interdett and the relationship between church and politics

Victor Ragonesi
Victor Ragonesi

THE ETERNAL bond between the Christian Democrat Partit Nazzjonalista and the church is implied. But the Vatican was not convinced of the PN’s intentions when it wanted to further the Maltese Catholic church’s power in the 1962 independence constitution.

“The English minister in charge of commonwealth affairs asked us: ‘Why do you want to include this bloody clause about the church?’ Even the Vatican thinks that you want to be more catholic than the pope,” recalls Victor Ragonesi, at the time secretary general of the PN. The Nationalist Party was in government and it was obsessed with entrenching the religion of Malta as the “Roman Catholic Apostolic Religion.”

The Unholy War: a five-part series on Malta’s Interdett – Part 1

The people miming Beelzebub: Lino Spiteri remembers the Interdett – Part 2

Across the great divide: Guido de Marco during the interdiction – Part 3

Divide et Impera: Ragonesi recalls PN during the interdiction – Part 4

Scar tissue: The aftermath of the interdett – Part Five

The PN wanted to give free reign to the Church over “the duty and the right to teach which principles are right and which are wrong.” So it does come as a surprise that Ragonesi says “as a principle the PN never wanted for religion and politics to mix.”

He does however concede the PN used to have members who mentioned religion during their meetings. Ragonesi continues that Borg Olivier and himself, who always took part in “principal meetings during the elections and even during the integration transition, never wanted to take advantage of the interdett.”

But seeing that the MLP leader Dom Mintoff was Archbishop Gonzi’s bete noire, wasn’t it inevitable the PN would gain a considerable advantage? “That Gonzi considered Borg Olivier the designate leader of the Gunta – this I do not accept,” Ragonesi insists. His justification being that Gonzi was always against Malta’s independence. According to his faithful secretary, Borg Olivier never uttered a word in favour or against the intedett: “We always said that it was the church’s business and we would not interfere.” One would be excused for suspecting that the deafening silence from the PN executive and leader only helped pave the way to subsequent electoral victories. It would have logically been against the PN’s interests for the interdett to come to an end.

Ragonesi is frank about politics yet seemingly reluctant to delve into the merits of the interdict. When pressed on the subject his pronouncements betray where his sympathies lay. “The MLP did not want the church to have the last say over the basic fundamental moral issues which have to do with the church or any religion,” Ragonesi says.

The former PN secretary general does believe that “the church should not interfere in strictly political affairs” but when there are moral issues at stake “the church has every right to intervene.”

Ragonesi justifies the inclusion of Roman Catholicism as Malta’s official religion in the Constitution since 97 per cent of the people at the time went to church. As Borg Olivier’s right-hand man, Ragonesi was present at every single discussion involving the drafting of the Maltese independence constitution. “I was always there, never missed a single one of them,” he says.

When the Maltese government was discussing the clause of the constitution which deals with the Catholic Church and her functions, Ragonesi remembers that “the English Minister let slip that not even the Vatican approved of their insistence to include the clause about the Catholic Church.”

The draft of the independence constitution involved long meetings in London, especially since the Maltese delegation had proposed a lot of changes based on the peace pact made between the Vatican and Italy in 1929. The fact that the British government and the Opposition in Malta objected to the inclusion of the clause related to the Catholic church did not deter Borg Olivier who always insisted that when Malta became independent it would be able to include whatever it wanted in the constitution. The British insisted that this clause was highly unusual.

“In none of the independent commonwealth would you find a clause related to religion,” Ragonesi says. And so the Vatican’s stance on this matter was truly bewildering news to Borg Olivier and his delegation. “The Italo-American Vatican envoy had always told us that he approved of this clause,” says Ragonesi.

The Vatican’s rebuke bothered the Maltese Prime Minister to the extent that he sent Ragonesi out on the first morning flight to Rome to deliver a message to the Holy See. The message was clear: “Do not interfere in our constitution, not even in the clause regarding religion unless you can prove that I am harming religion or the church.”

Ragonesi, Malta’s Hermes with the Vatican, proudly says that the Vatican was his niche since he could always speak Italian fluently. Indeed, the lawyer, whom I meet a couple of days after his 81 birthday peppers his conversation with Italian phrases. He refers to Seneca and also quotes wellknown Latin sayings. It is hard to believe that he is not a product of the Liceo Classico, until he tells me that he was Nerik Mizzi’s apprentice. Mizzi, a ‘Belti’ like Ragonesi was Prime Minister for three months and was renowned for his Italian sympathies – even during World War II.

Mizzi was also interred and deported to Uganda with another 47 others for their close connection to the Italian authorities at the time. Consequently it makes sense that a party with such close historical ties to Italy would see red whenever they heard the word integration. Ragonesi was always of the opinion that Mintoff was never sincere about integration.

“He made so many reservations and exceptions as regards to integration that I believe he used to say he wanted integration with Britain so that they would give him more money that would enable him to remain in government.”

If that was the case then Mintoff’s plan backfired. The result of the referendum was not accepted as being favourable of Malta’s integration with the United Kingdom. Ragonesi thinks that “England wanted the integration more genuinely in the beginning because they needed Malta for military reasons.”

After the Suez Canal Crisis, the British had come to the realisation that their Empire was no more. Malta would no longer be of any military strategic importance making it highly unlikely that they would be willing to keep up the expensive hobby of collecting colonies.

Yet Ragonesi says that Sir Anthony Eden’s memoirs, who was Prime Minster during the integration, include a chapter on Malta which starts: ‘it is refreshing to know that one colony – Malta wanted to integrate with Britain.’ To Eden’s knowledge we were the exception because the entire commonwealth wanted independence, Ragonesi muses. The only country that was integrated, Northern Ireland wanted out as well. “That is why I thought Mintoff, whom I always considered a friend even though we did not see eye to eye, could not have been sincere about integration,” Ragonesi says.

The seasoned politician chuckles: “Well, Seneca once wrote about politics: your mother must have been a prostitute, so it was always like that.”

Ticket to hell

THE FACTS speak for themselves. After the strong warnings issued by Archbishop Michael Gonzi’s curia about the dangers of supporting “the socialist enemies of the church,” the die was cast. The Malta Labour Party did not win an election during the interdiction.

During the 1962 elections the MLP gained 50,974 votes. These votes increased to 61,774 votes in 1966. Eventually the MLP managed 85,448 votes in 1971 to claim its first victory since the interdiction.

Ragonesi says that it would be unfair to assume that the Nationalist Party’s victories were the result of the interdiction. “After the fight against the integration which we as a party were resolutely against, the people had the opportunity to vote in the Independence referendum and they did with 65,714 voting in favour,” he says.

The MLP had won a relative victory in the integration referendum of 1956 as 44.25 per cent of all voters voted in favour. The British and the PN did not accept the integration because 40.87 percent had abstained from voting meaning that out of 152,783 registered voters only 67,607 voted in favour.

Ragonesi elaborates: “one must analyse the moral concept and traditions of past times. Back then it was different, catholic principles used to be more rigid, there wasn’t a liberal or laissez faire attitude that there is today. The Maltese did fear the wrath of Archbishop Michael Gonzi and his God.

In the letters circulated by hand amongst the priests there were blunt instructions on how to ostracise or change the opinions of Labour members and sympathisers. “If the person who is confessing did not vote because he did not have faith in the politicians (except those who were members of the party contrary to the church) the confessor has the obligation to change the person’s view with arguments that explain how grave it was not to vote for these parties,” said the letter worded in Latin and issued on the 7 of March 1962. Priests were only allowed to forgive people’s sins “if they were deemed to be truly and sincerely sorry for having voted for the party which was hostile to the church.”

Had anyone had the misfortune to canvass for the MLP politicians or publicly state that they were MLP voters they could only be forgiven for their sins “if they publicly stated that they were sorry for having done so.”

Ragonesi never expressed his feelings about the interdiction openly at the time and his party cannot be blamed for making hay while the sun shines by neither condoning nor condemning the interdiction. Even in his advanced age Ragonesi still has the tact of a lawyer as he diplomatically says that “people are not forced to be Catholics.”

“After all the church is like a club and you have to obey the rules,” he says. Ragonesi does give the labourite voters during the interdiction the benefit of the doubt, but from the historical documents and accounts being uncovered, he is definitely in denial about Archbishop Gonzi when he says “that Gonzi’s curia never interfered in politics and only spoke about religious matters.”

The Maltese church had probably not administered such an extensive manipulation of society since the times of the Inquisition. The Archbishop wrote at the time that “the church’s divine will to endeavour for a perfect society basking on God’s grace meant that it could never err.”

From the pulpit of the local church, preachers stressed the consequences of not obeying the church’s will. These ranged from the mortal sin to burning in hell for all eternity, the penultimate sanction for devout Catholics.

But as the old adage goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and even Labour politicians like Lino Spiteri grant that Gonzi truly believed that “the enemies of the Church who engaged themselves in socialist teachings did their utmost to trick believers and send them to hell.”

NEXT Scar tissue: The aftermath of the interdett – Part Five