A theory of violence

Bombs, state-sponsored thuggery, and even murder are part of the political mythology of the 1980s. A new book that interviews those closest to the late former Labour Prime Minister, Dom Mintoff, sheds some light on the spiral of violence that split a nation

Dom Mintoff: his many shades included the sin of omission of failing to quell thuggery
Dom Mintoff: his many shades included the sin of omission of failing to quell thuggery
From left: the late Minister Guze Cassar, Karmenu Vella, Joe Debono Grech and Dom Mintoff
From left: the late Minister Guze Cassar, Karmenu Vella, Joe Debono Grech and Dom Mintoff

At midpoint through the Mintoffian playbook comes a violent turn in the Labour record. The daring foreign policy that made Helsinki wait, the aspiration towards non-militarised, republican independence and neutrality, the welfare state and the creation of the manufacturing industry, are but one side of the Janus-like prime minister that was Dom Mintoff.

Bomb attacks perpetrated on both sides of the divide, murder, thugs protected by government ministers, unchecked violence endangering the rule of law, and restrictions on consumer spending will forever be etched into Mintoff’s legacy.

Beyond the trite adjectives the late premier often invites – fiery, stubborn, hot-headed, demagogic – historians have so far left the 1980s a matter of unresolved business. The journalistic reference point comes from the Nationalist stable with Dione Borg’s Libertà Mhedda, while novelist Alex Vella Gera aptly captured the anti-Mintoffian psychosis of the time by devising a failed assassination plot for Is-Sriep Regghu Saru Velenuzi.

But a new book of interviews rises above the hagiographies and vanity publications in the wake of Mintoff’s death in 2012, to provide 60 intimate insights into the Labour prime minister’s modus operandi. L’Elf Lewn Ta’ Mintoff perhaps sows the seed for a much-needed analysis of the aggression permeating Maltese politics and institutions between the 1960s and 1980s, capturing the disparate views of protagonists from opposing camps on a fundamental question: was Mintoff ultimately responsible or culpable for the violence under Labour?

Historian Dominic Fenech bookends this tome with one of the more rational evaluations of Mintoff’s days. A Labour secretary-general between 1977 and 1983, he is quick to apportion the blame on Labour ministers of the time, contextualising the evolution of the violence from the pre-Independence riots under British rule and police commissioner Vivian De Gray.

“The Nationalists would hold a mass meeting in Qui Si Sana, only to be hailed upon by stones – so I’m not saying Labourites were saints. But a history of violence in Malta requires its own investigation and that does not seek to apportion blame. Everybody suffered violence, both morally and physically,” the historian tells author Claire Xuereb Grech.

Tal-Barrani: the incident happened under Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici as PM
Tal-Barrani: the incident happened under Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici as PM

His insight into Mintoff’s own explanation for what happened, years after he stepped down from prime minister, is revealing. “Mintoff had told me that under colonial rule between 1958 and 1962, and even during the sixties under the Nationalists, Labour was under siege. The Church was against them, the British were against them, the police were against them. The police were brutal towards Labourites under both British rule and the Nationalist administration. He told me, ‘God knows had we not had four chaps who could fight it out and get their hands dirty, or we would have been brutalised and decimated’.”

Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth – Fenech suggests – a party in Opposition that needed its hard men to ward off the overweening power of the Crown. “Let’s not exaggerate – what happened in Malta was no Cyprus. My interpretation is that what started as a strategy from a position of weakness, suddenly lost its bearings. In government there were ministers who believed in having men ready to show force. And there were bullies who revelled in this: but they were a party unto their own, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that they were pushed by somebody with an own agenda,” Fenech says.

His recollection of Mintoff, two days after The Times’ offices were burnt down by Labour supporters was that of him in a rage. “You must think him a fool to believe that he had anything to gain from the attacks on The Times and on Eddie Fenech Adami’s home.”

But another eminent historian, Henry Frendo, says it was Mintoff who took the country “out of the Middle Ages and straight into the Inquisition” by presiding over state-sponsored violence such as the Rabat shootings on PN supporters. “His incitement stoked the violence, exemplified by the arson attack on The Times.”

The height of the violence, PN MP Louis Galea looks on the body of Raymond Caruana in a pool of his own blood
The height of the violence, PN MP Louis Galea looks on the body of Raymond Caruana in a pool of his own blood

“In 1976 he lost control of the violence,” historian Prof. Joe Pirotta says. “In parliamaent Mintoff defended ‘it-Toto’ [Anthony Carabott] when he drove straight into a crowd of Nationalists in Kalkara. That’s where the message was sent out that they could do whatever they wanted, and the violence escalated. Much later you see the influence of Lorry Sant who wanted to blackmail him,” Pirotta says – a possible reference to the infamous photographs allegedly of Mintoff and his sister-in-law in a compromising dalliance; Sant produced those photos in parliament in 1989 to attack Mintoff’s nephew Wenzu, then Labour whip, for seeking the erstwhile minister’s expulsion from the party. 

Mintoff’s sin of omission

Former Labour minister Joe Debono Grech however says that while Mintoff was aware of who was perpetrating violence, he would never reach the stage of sacking any party activists. “He’d shout at you, tell you you’re going wrong, but not expel you from the party,” the Labour veteran – whose father was transferred from one government posting to the other 61 times between 1962 and 1971 – says.

“When Labour lost the election [1987], the bombs stopped… he never sent out anyone to fight. Mintoff would scold his ministers about their hangers-on. They did the party a lot of harm.”

Martin Zammit, Mintoff’s private secretary from 1979 until 1984, refuses to consider Mintoff’s responsibility in the matter. “How do you explain a bomb placed on the doorstep of the police commissioner’s house, who was considered an instrument of the Labour government? The bombs that stopped after the Nationalists were elected? The balustrades thrown on Labour activists in Zebbug?... I swear I have never heard Mintoff tell anyone to burn down somewhere or commit some act of vengeance.”

Mintoff’s hand-picked successor, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici – whom Eddie Fenech Adami brands as “morally corrupt” in his own memoirs – is even more categorical. “The incidents were reactions to provocation… there were regular terrorist attempts such as the bomb attacks, most frequently against government supporters; the victimisation of government supporters in the private sector; a social boycott of doctors who did not take part in the doctors’ strike… the violence came from a militant terrorist action of sabotage that came from different sectors, such as commerce and the media.”

But former ministers like the late Lino Spiteri, known to have never taken Mintoff’s headstrong ways sitting down, said there was something he could have done.

“The violence was committed by a small number of people, I’d reckon between 30 to 50 people and no more, a couple of bullies who included ministers’ canvassers who had taken matters in their hands and whom neither the police nor he could control them; I think he should have told the ministers concerned to control their men. He did not do this and this was a great shortcoming of his.

“I think he has a large part of the blame,” Spiteri said of Mintoff, adding that he must have known who the perpetrators of the violence were. “He didn’t control the police enough. He was a normal man with his shortcomings… his attitude was rough, domineering, and abrupt.”

Sant and Wistin, and the FFF

Minister Wistin Abela with party activists
Minister Wistin Abela with party activists

Undeniably, Lorry Sant – former works minister whose death released him from corruption charges – is the minister whom critics clearly identify with the violence of the 1980s. “He was surrounded by people who would use force, and he was shocked when he did not become party leader,” says former In-Nazzjon Taghna editor Victor Camilleri. “He was a pup raised by Mintoff but grew into a large dog that started biting its own master.”

Dominic Fenech’s argument is echoed by that of former Nationalist minister Lawrence Gatt, who however concedes that Mintoff remains guilty of a sin of omission. “He could have stopped the violence. Lorry Sant was a rough one, but [Mintoff’s] word had authority on the rest [of his ministers]. He had great charisma and had he given the order, that the party would not protect anyone who breaks the law, they would have obeyed him.”

Former Nationalist MP Josie Muscat – who experienced violence first-hand when he canvassed in Labour strongholds in the south – says Lorry Sant twice broke his spectacles in the House, and then beat him outside parliament after giving a speech in the House. “They [Sant and a government driver] threw this ashtray full of sand, used for cigarette butts, at me. They locked me in a lavatory. That’s the kind of violence we saw… it’s hard not to think that this was a premeditated strategy.”

It is clear that people like Sant, and the excessive violence of canvassers from Zejtun under the influence of former minister Wistin Abela, were at the heart of this kind of state-sponsored violence. But then, as Spiteri himself has pointed out, Mintoff shares the blame with his glaring sin of omission. Even Richard Matrenza, a former diplomat, points out his uncouth ways and inciting manner when convening mass meetings in Sliema where he would rail against Sliema residents themselves.

“His inciting oratory did not help matters,” Josie Muscat says. “He styled himself as a bully, even in his clothing. He did not go beyond the limit but once this culture of violence took hold, he was unable to control it.”

In the end, much like the Labour thuggery set up to withstand the dominant forces of the 1960s, so did Josie Muscat respond with his Front Freedom Fighters after the 1981 election. “I saw the martyrdom of Nationalist families in the Cottonera. I was convinced that if nobody stood up to Labour violence, we would never make it in the second and third districts. But some of my friends running in the district who felt intimidated by the violence wanted to avoid confrontation.”

Muscat says his FFFs were more of a bluff aimed at putting up a show of resistance. “The FFF never entered into a confrontation. The fact it existed gave courage to Nationalists and caused some concern to violent Labourites.”

Mintoff eventually fell out with Lorry Sant, whose leadership ambitions had to be thwarted by anointing Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici as his effete successor. “Lorry still loved Mintoff and he was hurt that Mintoff had turned against him,” Carmen Sant, the late minister’s wife, says. “It’s not true that power went to his head. He never had the chance to defend himself against these accusations, neither in court nor in the Labour general conference.”

Sant died in 1995, never to face corruption charges due to the time-barred crimes and then having benefited from Nationalist largesse with a 1992 pardon for his part in the infamous law courts incidents of June 1987.

“Lorry Sant had no interest in stopping that violence,” Prof. Joe Pirotta says. “I think Mintoff had a certain element of comfort about that violence, because the political result was clear enough.”