The rise (and fall?) of the Éminence grise

Is the redoubtable Richard Cachia Caruana facing a motion that Labour cannot lose? A profile of the man everybody loves to hate.

As Lawrence Gonzi’s one-seat majority teeters from one political hiccup to the next crisis, the Permanent Representative to the EU finds himself subjected to a motion that calls for his resignation.
As Lawrence Gonzi’s one-seat majority teeters from one political hiccup to the next crisis, the Permanent Representative to the EU finds himself subjected to a motion that calls for his resignation.

R-C-C: one of the most powerful abbreviations in Malta's modern political history, inspiring awe among political observers, and giving finality and gravitas to all political decisions that carry its stamp.

Richard Cachia Caruana, for three decades on the political frontline of the Nationalist Party and government, is facing a delicate moment. As Lawrence Gonzi's one-seat majority keeps teetering from one political hiccup to the next crisis, the Permanent Representative to the EU finds himself subjected to a parliamentary hearing and motion that calls for his resignation.

Long feared and revered by government mandarins and party henchmen, Cachia Caruana - the unelected, all-knowing and all-seeing éminence grise who served Eddie Fenech Adami for almost three decades and negotiated Malta's EU membership - is, by no stretch of imagination, a somewhat legendary political figure.

Born in 1955, the grandson of the 11th Baron of Ghariexem and Tabia, he was educated at St Edward's College, graduating in economics from the University of Malta and obtaining his Master's in marketing from the London School of Business Studies in 1979. In the 80s, he served as a director at Gallup Malta, which later became Misco: its directors today are close acolytes of the Nationalist government, with Lawrence Zammit a member of the PN strategy group and seasoned director of public companies and quangos.

His relationship with Eddie Fenech Adami was cemented in the 1980s when he served as campaign manager during the two elections of that decade, and thereafter serving as his personal assistant when John Camilleri, private secretary to Fenech Adami, felt he had been muscled out.

From his role as the Prime Minister's assistant to chief EU negotiator and finally permanent representative to the European Union, Cachia Caruana became embedded in the collective psyche as some 'dark prince' of the Nationalist government: too intelligent and politically astute for Labour's good, managing to retain both a low profile and an influential grip on Maltese politics both locally and abroad, rendering him indispensable to the PN during successive electoral victories.

Castille's dark heart

It has to be said that much of his success in leading Malta's EU negotiations, and then safeguarding the national interest inside the COREPER meetings he has with counterparts from the EU27, goes relatively unnoticed. Even the PfP reactivation, which now threatens to become his downfall, is proof of his mastery of the political and diplomatic game.

And yet, critics have found his demeanour to be elitist, haughty and disparaging of others in his service. Some anecdotes will recall a short-tempered episode (angry outbursts delivered in the English language, of course); others reveal regrettable traits: a former chauffeur had revealed that Cachia Caruana was not in Brussels to attend the funeral of his chauffeur Armand Aché, who suffered a stroke while on the job outside the European Council building. According to whistleblower Michel Demol, it was only on the eve of Aché's death that Cachia Caruana finally paid the semi-paralysed chauffeur the one visit at his home in Jettes, accompanied by Cachia Caruana's parents on a visit to Brussels. "Since Armand often drove the perm rep's parents in Brussels, they wanted to pay him a visit. The next day Armand took his life," Demol said. "The worst thing is that the perm rep did not come to his funeral."

In the press, Cachia Caruana's is always a cameo role, punctuating the otherwise drab political drama. Newspapers like MaltaToday have enjoyed documenting his affairs (down to photographing his swimming pool being built at his Mdina residence over an area officially classified as having archaeological importance).

Other journalists more partial to the government of the day were happy to spin the agenda or gate-keeping as they were directed to, perhaps during one of the meetings he would hold at the Westin Dragonara's lobby, where he is known to hold court.

He could strike fear in the hearts of employees. On assignment to a European Council meeting in Greece in 2003, I remember seasoned reporters taunting a kindly employee of the Malta-EU Information Centre that they would "tell him off" to Richard over some hitch in the day's proceedings. I had only started out in the trade, but I could sense fear when I saw it.

But even this had its limits: The Times' senior deputy editor Roger Mifsud remembers Cachia Caruana as "an unscrupulous bully".

As news editor, Mifsud was brought in contact frequently with Cachia Caruana after 1987. "He did not like me when he came to know me, because I did not hold him in awe. Nor did I like him for his spurious patrician ways," Mifsud wrote in a frank letter to The Malta Independent.

He particularly recalls a "nasty incident" in which Cachia Caruana took a Times reporter aside and asked him to convey a message to him: "We know who acts as editor of The Times on Mondays [Mifsud sat in for the editor at the start of the week] and who is tucking away in discreet, not-at-all prominent corners, the news reports on the deliberations of the Cabinet."

Mifsud said the "obvious attempt at intimidation" made him bristle. He wrote to Eddie Fenech Adami, telling him that his longa manus "did not know how to properly use this overweening power he had". The letter was never acknowledged.

Labour finds his presence on the Cabinet table particularly odious. Cachia Caruana is the only non-minister to be invited by the Prime Minister to sit on meetings. Their current offensive focuses on how he successfully overturned what was Labour's unconditional withdrawal from NATO's Partnership for Peace in 1996, to a "suspension of participation" allowing Malta to 'reactivate' its PfP membership in 2008, so that the government can sit in on EU-NATO meetings; but most seriously, without seeking parliamentary consent for its reactivation.

Other MPs and ministers privately bemoan the hold he can have on policy, and of course campaign strategy. Cachia Caruana has refuted the notion that he orders ministers around: "The notion is beyond ridiculous," he had told The Times. "Not even the Prime Minister should order ministers around. I imagine the last person to try that was Dom Mintoff."

His ambition to become EU Commissioner and sit at the table of Europe's most powerful technocrats has long been touted. In the end, it had to be Lawrence Gonzi's rival John Dalli, to be kicked upstairs to the €200,000-a-year position. "What I wish is irrelevant," he said when asked whether he harboured any desire to be Commissioner. "The only thing I wish to see is the Prime Minister feeling free to nominate whoever he thinks is right for the job... I am not in any way going to try and make it more difficult for him to make that decision."

Not the power behind the throne

But Cachia Caruana has been adamant in insisting that he is not the power behind the throne. In a rare interview conceded to The Times' correspondent in Brussels, the ambassador claimed there was "no room for a power behind the throne in our political system".

"What you are saying is that the person on the throne is a puppet. This is offensive in the extreme, and categorically and obviously untrue," Cachia Caruana said, insisting that he always served his bosses in the best possible way.

"I am just an employee, one with certain organisational skills and the ability to perform my job loyally and well, but still just an employee. In other words, I take orders, not give them. When people don't like a particular decision taken in their regard, they find it easier to believe that I'm to blame, because they can't face up to the fact that this is what the Prime Minister thinks about them or one of their proposals or requests."

Perhaps it was his role as Eddie Fenech Adami's ruthless enforcer that served to build the sense of animosity that his name inspires. It is a harrowing thought to consider that the attempt on his life in 1994, the Mdina stabbing that to this day remains without any reasonable motive - at least one that is acknowledged publicly - still represents the most high-profile attack on a high functionary of the State. If Cachia Caruana was Fenech Adami's éminence grise, this attack was a heinous and aggravated lèse majesté.

Its mysterious circumstances forever cemented the perception of Cachia Caruana's so called power. The man who allegedly stabbed him, Joseph Fenech 'il-Hafi' - once a bodyguard to Fenech Adami during the 1980s - was given a presidential pardon to turn State's evidence and reveal who commissioned the hit. But the acquittal of a minor accomplice, Ian Farrugia (Charles Attard 'iz-Zambi', another accomplice who pleaded guilty, has since recanted while in prison), has shed doubts on Fenech's testimony.

Fenech accused Meinrad Calleja of having commissioned the hit, ostensibly as revenge after his father Brigadier Maurice Calleja was forced to resign the command of the Armed Forces when Meinrad was convicted of drug trafficking. After his acquittal on the attempted murder charge, Calleja surmised that 'Zeppi l-Hafi' had carried out the attempt at the behest of others, "maybe for reasons related to pending tender contracts at the time, with the patent of Mafia-style tactics and violence".

Calleja even claimed Fenech had told him he had a kambjala, a trump card on the Fenech Adami administration, that was his get-out-of-jail card.

One-seat revenge?

Over the years, Richard Cachia Caruana administered the art of politics and enforcement for his prime ministers with some necessary ruthlessness. The results were mixed, and the lingering effects are now being felt.

The choice of Dar Malta in 2004, an expensive piece of real estate right across the road from the European Commission's Berlaymont headquarters, became a symbol of his extravagance. His choice of consultant architect Martin Xuereb, who carried out private work for him on his Mdina residence, smacked of nepotism; taking on as legal advisor for the Dar Malta acquisition Peter Caruana Galizia (RCC said he was appointed directly by government investment arm Mimcol), was redolent of his close friendship to Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Malta Independent columnist whose poison-pen blog today represents the Nationalist Party's unofficial media.

While he toiled in the diplomatic war-room behind the scenes, many of these acts publicly gave Cachia Caruana an unwholesome persona. But even his more astute decisions in the service of the Nationalist government and party seem to be coming back to haunt him.

When Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's rental of his private land in Mistra for an open-air disco became the subject of a political scandal, Cachia Caruana instructed the MP to chase Alfred Sant down and take him head-on. Pullicino Orlando's 'martyrdom' cost the PN an absolute majority but re-elected the MP on two districts. The government's Pyrrhic victory left Pullicino Orlando a scorned MP, being denied a ministry for the public opprobrium he had fomented against him and the party.

Cachia Caruana would not be left untouched by the problems of Gonzi's unsettled one-seat majority. Soon after re-election, he was drawn into the controversy over the extension of the St John's Co-Cathedral Museum, on whose foundation he sits. His idea to build an underground museum, a red flag to conservationist organisations, was the first opportunity for Pullicino Orlando to tell Gonzi he could not count on his vote to nullify a Labour motion against the Cathedral's extension. Political sense led to Lawrence Gonzi pulling the plug on the project.

Cachia Caruana, self-confessed political realist that he is, knew he was in no position to provoke the MP's ire by pushing ahead with the project. In his own words, "I lack the arrogance to expect [Gonzi] to consult me, still less demand it, despite popular notions to the contrary."

More bad publicity came from the perception that Cachia Caruana has gate-keeping media and other journalists doing the government's bidding.

According to Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando's testimony, in a libel suit Cachia Caruana instituted against Mediatoday managing editor Saviour Balzan, Daphne Caruana Galizia told him RCC had asked her to attack him in her blog soon after the 2008 re-election. The columnist has denied the claim.

Accusing him is another frequent victim of Caruana Galizia's blog. Nationalist MP Franco Debono has used his Facebook wall to question whether Cachia Caruana's idea for the Cathedral's €16 million extension had harmed the government: "Is he a team player? Is he power-hungry? Is he ever satisfied? Is he an egoist? Is he a narcissist? Is he ambitious? Is this sanity? To whom is he accountable?"

Debono's outbursts and Facebook status updates may lack good form, but his accusations hardly go unnoticed. In parliament, Debono has questioned Cachia Caruana's role "in the shadows" and extra-parliamentary influence, and he often brings up his St Edward's College schooling to infer his elitist pedigree.

Debono knows Labour's motion to see Cachia Caruana resign is a date with destiny. If the redoubtable Cachia Caruana is about to be undone by Debono, the irony of the one-seat majority he worked hard to win in 2008 now deposing him, would not go amiss.

This story first appeared in MaltaToday on Sunday on page 14 of its print edition.

Luke Camilleri
I can never understand mystery around this triangle which, locally, has more questions than answers and in fact the truth on this relationship will never be known. We have on one side the Personal Assist to the Prime Minister Richard Cachia Caruana getting stabbed in the back, physically and literally and one of the perpetuators being none other than the Barefooted chap that used to support the Prime Minister shoulder high. To add insult to Richard Cachia Caruana's injury, this perpetuator, a die-hard Nationalist , was described by Eddie as “ Having Good Qualities and not so Good qualities" . It was never disclosed what the good qualities recognized by the Prime Minister were. The Infamous Malta Triangle Eddie / Edward Fenech Adami approving Lm30,000 RCC as the victim of stabbing and recommending and giving 3 Presidential Pardons to one of the perpetuators.... More mysteries ND INTRIQUES IN THIS Kastilja Triangle than in the wholeBermuda Triangle !
Why not contradicted the points and snippets raised in the article Mr crossa? Obviously you can't so you just tell us how boring the whole affiar is. Boring to you but an eye opener to the rest of us.
Albert Mifsud Buckland
This fixation with RCC is really boring. Apart from the fact that the LP attacks are motivated solely with riding on Franco Debono's outburst (how else would you explain all this fuss after FD's attack on RCC?). Anyway in my opinion the LP wants (wishes) to get rid of RCC in the hope that he bows out of politics causing a dire loss to the PN. Fat chance me thinks. Part of all this charade is enviousness at having such a thinker/doer in the PN fold. Rather than ging down this road the PL would be well advised to seek a couterbalance to RCC's capabilities... difficult as that may seem!!