Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, whose premiership was marred by harrowing 1980s, dies at 89

Labour Prime Minister who was handed the premiership by socialist grandee Dom Mintoff in 1984, has passed away.

Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici
Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici

Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, prime minister of Malta from 1984 to 1987, has passed away. He was 89.

He presided over one of Malta’s most turbulent periods in history, taking over the reins of a divided country from Dom Mintoff, and seeing through controversial reforms in education that resulted in the infamous Church school protests and boycotts.

The radicalisation of PN supporters at the time and the association of criminal elements with particular Labour ministers, led to clashes with the forces of law loyal to the State, as well as violence visited upon PN supporters by Labour supporters. Mifsud Bonnici was unable to quell the violence.

Labourite by choice

Son of Lorenzo Mifsud Bonnici and Catherine Buttigieg, Karmenu was born in a family strongly anchored in the Nationalist Party – his brother Antoine was a Nationalist MP and later parliamentary secretary; his cousin was Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, son of the PN grandee Carmelo ‘il-Gross’ Mifsud Bonnici, who would later become minister and President of Malta.

Never married, he practised law right up into his old age until his health permitted.

He studied at the Lyceum and graduated in law at the University of Malta in 1954, and later lectured in Industrial and Fiscal Law at the University of Malta.

In the 1960s, at the height of the dispute between the Maltese Church and the Labour Party, he was an official of a number of lay organisations connected to the Church, including the Catholic Social Guild and the Young Christian Workers Movement, and supported the “diocesan junta” of Church organisations opposing Dom Mintoff and Labour.

He would later claim to be “a Nationalist by birth, but a Labourite through free choice and conviction”.

After the GWU, under Mintoff's wing

On 29 May, 1980, Mintoff proposed Mifsud Bonnici to be appointed Deputy Leader of the Labour Party responsible for Party Affairs, a proposal unanimously approved by the General Conference of the Labour Party. He was responsible for the Labour Party's electoral campaign during the 1981 general elections which the Labour Party won for the third consecutive time.

But the election result, where Labour obtained a majority of seats as opposed to a majority of votes, proved troublesome for Mintoff: the PN boycotted the House of Representatives, and Mintoff rued the constititutional anomaly of the election, making his own bid for reconciliation by later entering into negotiations to amend the Constitutional electoral law.

Mintoff’s plans to vacate the leadership of the country and party were pinned on introducing the Catholic, GWU lawyer Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici to the halls of power.

In 1982, Mintoff, once again hoping to quell leadership ambitions from other ministers allied to notorious elements in the party like Lorry Sant and Wistin Abela, appointed Mifsud Bonnici as designate-leader of the MLP.

Mifsud Bonnici was co-opted to Parliament after the resignation of Labour MP Paul Xuereb and appointed Minister of Labour and Social Services. In 1983 he was appointed senior deputy Prime Minister and education minister.

But his ham-fisted reforms to make faith-schools owned by Church orders free for all was met with opposition by the Catholic Church, with parents falling in line when schools closed their doors. The impasse was resolved with negotiations on state financing of the schools.

Mifsud Bonnici was sworn in as Prime Minister on 22 December, 1984, following the announcement of Dom Mintoff's resignation on the same day in Parliament.

Mifsud Bonnici’s tenure as Prime Minister was seen as a continuation of the Dom Mintoff years.

But the political violence of the 1980s was heightened under his premiership by the seeming lack of control over other Cabinet ministers who were associated with violent criminals.

Relations with the church deteriorated on two fronts: the enactment of a Bill to seize church property – at first without compensation – and to take control of church schools.

In 1984, a demonstration by some workers of the Malta Drydocks, at which Mifsud Bonnici was present, climaxed when the offices of the Maltese Curia were ransacked after the demonstration had ended.

In 1985, Mifsud Bonnici was the lead negotiator in the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 648 in which 60 of the 92 passengers were killed.

After the 1987 election, which he narrowly lost, Mifsud Bonnici led Labour up until 1992, when following a second electoral defeat, he resigned, to be succeeded by Alfred Sant. He held his seat until the following election in 1996.

Sant had credited Karmenu Mifsud with having engineered new openings in Maltese society for the MLP, which had by then become “too constricted within the comfort zone of its hardcore supporters. Karmenu had managed to attract back towards Labour and its works, the goodwill of people in the literary/artistic community who over the 1970s were alienated by Prime Minister Mintoff’s confrontational way of doing politics.”

In 2002, Mifsud Bonnici led the eurosceptic organisation Campaign for National Independence, campaigning against EU accession. He also joined Dom Mintoff’s ‘Front Maltin Inqumu’ (Maltese Arise), to campaign against EU accession.