Labour MPs face angry backlash after snubbing Jean Paul Sofia’s grieving parents

An Opposition motion calling for a public inquiry into the death of 20-year-old Jean Paul Sofia was rejected after government voted against and now, the 40 Labour MPs are facing backlash from constituents and grassroots supporters

Jean Paul Sofia's grieving parents, relatives and friends seen here in parliament confronting Labour MPs after they voted against a motion calling for a public inquiry into the incident
Jean Paul Sofia's grieving parents, relatives and friends seen here in parliament confronting Labour MPs after they voted against a motion calling for a public inquiry into the incident

Labour MPs are facing an angry backlash after opposing a public inquiry into Jean Paul Sofia’s death, representing a turning point for the Abela administration.

The backlash is not confined to middle of the road voters with MPs coming under fire even from grassroots supporters.

A handful of MPs who spoke to MaltaToday on condition of anonymity to be able to speak freely, reported receiving angry emails and messages from constituents following Wednesday’s parliamentary vote.

“There is backlash and it is also coming from our own grassroots because they perceive our position as lacking empathy towards Jean Paul Sofia’s parents,” a Cabinet member told MaltaToday.

Sofia was killed when a building under construction at the Corradino Industrial Estate collapsed last December. Since then, his mother, Isabelle Bonnici, has campaigned relentlessly to have a public inquiry into the tragic death but Prime Minister Robert Abela has refused, insisting the ongoing magisterial inquiry was the best route to achieve justice.

But the Cabinet member who spoke to this newspaper said the government did not explain its stand well in the run up to Wednesday’s vote. “Unfortunately, we mishandled this and for weeks the Prime Minister was too focussed on legalisms, coming across as cold and disinterested in what a grieving mother had to say.”

He complained that the situation was allowed to reach a tipping point with Wednesday’s vote being the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

“To make matters worse, the Sofia debacle came on top of a situation where people are frustrated by environmental problems and the pressure on infrastructure from the sudden population growth of the past 10 years.”

Another MP pointed towards a social media message from a former member of a ministerial secretariat telling Labour MPs not to come knocking on her door.

“When you have core Labour voters like this woman making such statements in public, you realise that the situation is very bad,” the MP said. “I have received several emails with very stiff comments on the way we voted and likewise my colleagues in the parliamentary group.”

Another member of Cabinet said the Prime Minister and the parliamentary group underestimated the impact of the Sofia case on the collective psyche.

“This case has got people across all the voting age spectrum talking about it,” the minister said, admitting the decision to vote against the public inquiry made it seem like Labour MPs spuriously took on a grieving mother. “Our stand has angered people, who sympathise with Isabelle’s call, even though it is only a magisterial inquiry that will lead to criminal charges being filed against those responsible.”

Last Thursday, in an interview with MaltaToday, the Prime Minister did not commit to a public inquiry but vowed to publish the magisterial inquiry once it is concluded. He also insisted that if the magisterial inquiry did not address issues of an administrative matter such as how the land in Corradino was granted to the developers of the ill-fated building, he would see to it that other investigations are carried out.

But one MP described the Prime Minister’s attempt to try and explain the rationale behind his position as coming too late in the day.

“Some constituents were genuinely unable to understand the difference between a magisterial inquiry and a public inquiry, leaving them confused as to why Robert Abela was so against a public inquiry. Unfortunately, we did not communicate our position well enough and it seemed as if we shut off all avenues by insisting only on a rapid conclusion of the magisterial inquiry.”

Labour MPs were dumbstruck on Wednesday after they were confronted inside parliament by Isabelle Bonnici and Jean Paul Sofia’s father, John Sofia.

The parents, who followed proceedings from the Strangers’ Gallery had been hoping for a last-minute change of heart by government MPs.

But when the vote was called, the 40 Labour MPs present inside parliament voted together against the Opposition’s motion calling for a public inquiry into Sofia’s death.

Soon after the vote, Opposition leader Bernard Grech called government MPs “heartless”, a reaction that reverberated among ordinary people.

This reaction was aptly captured by former One News reporter and TV presenter Simone Cini who in a Facebook post said she did not want to be in the shoes of Labour MPs who “did not follow what their heart told them to do”.

She then addressed Isabelle: “Every parent is carrying part of your pain… but this is not enough. Have courage.”

Labour MPs now fear the backlash on the Sofia case marks a turning point of sorts and will contribute to higher voter abstention in next year’s European Parliament election.

One MP said Labour voters, including hard core supporters, could punish the government over what they consider is its intransigence. “It is still a long way to the European election but I fear that the widespread anger over the Sofia case could translate into Labour voters not voting.”

Yet another MP is pinning his hopes on the conclusions of the magisterial inquiry.

“The situation today is very bad but I am hoping that the magisterial inquiry will conclude soon and apart from establishing criminal responsibility suggest any further action that could be taken to address several issues of concern that are being raised,” he said.

This, he believes, could provide an opening for the government to change course and accept a public inquiry.

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