Maltese incident

Remembering the day a premier ‘doffed his cap’ to a mere hack.

I was drunk by the time I reached Malta.

It was back in the mid-1980s when airlines routinely offered free alcohol on flights. I had just received my usual whisky, when the guy sitting next to me suddenly produced a whole bottle of vodka and suggested we finish it off together on the journey. Like others working the oilfields of Libya, he explained, he used his travel allowance to fly via Malta so he could have a drink en route. The alternative was a ‘dry’ direct flight.

As I was expecting a quiet Friday evening I agreed to help him out.

I was on a rather unusual assignment to see whether any of the innovative approaches of the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB), for whom I worked at the time, might be transferable to Malta’s faltering economy. On previous visits I had got to know Father Dionysius Mintoff, a Franciscan friar, brother of the now former Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. Fr. Paul, as I knew him, was the founder of Malta’s Peace Lab which had issued my invitation.

The Smirnoff had been successfully demolished by the time we touched down at Luqa airport, around 4pm.

I staggered off the plane in casual attire and made my way across the parched tarmac towards the terminal building where I was rather taken aback to find a uniformed officer beside the entrance calling out my name.

He shepherd me away from the rest of the passengers and into a side door. I remember feeling quite fearful at the time. During the 1970’s I had been accosted by uniformed and non-uniformed officers at UK airports just for having the temerity to travel on an Irish passport. Luckily this door led to the VIP lounge.

Father Dionysius Mintoff OFM

And there I was greeted fulsomely by Fr Paul and members of the Peace Lab Committee. It was clear I would be spared the rigmarole of customs and visa checks. Instead Fr Paul gripped my arm and said that a TV crew was waiting outside to interview me for the evening news.

I was in no fit state to be interviewed by anyone, so I quickly explained. “I am just here as a journalist, Father. It is entirely inappropriate for me to be interviewed.”

“But they are here to see you,” he said, and I realised from his disappointed tone this was something he had set up.

“I am happy for them to film me with you,” I said, “But I have nothing to say to them yet.”

We moved out into the bright sunlight, and I gave the film crew a glance and maybe even a wave, then clambered into a car and off we went to an unknown destination where hoped I could unwind and find out what had been organised for my fact-finding mission.

Imagine my shock when I was told was that my first appointment was with the Prime Minister, at 6pm.

Panic set in. “I need black coffee and a cold shower,” I insisted. “No-one warned me about this. I don’t have the right clothes. And I’ve been drinking on the plane.”

I had come prepared for few days traipsing around Malta and Gozo informally collecting information and interviewing people. I stood under a cold shower in a blind funk wondering what other surprises might be in store for me.

The Cabinet Office in the Auberge De Castille

By the time we reached the imposing Auberge de Castille I had calmed down a bit, still casually dressed but trying to act like I was used to such scenarios.

Arriving in the Cabinet Room was daunting. The gleaming oval Cabinet Table dominated the room. Two chairs faced each other across its shiny surface.

The Peace Lab people and I stood in one corner until Prime Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici arrived through a door at the opposite end with his aide-de-camp carrying papers.

Introductions over Bonnici went strait to his chair on one side of the Cabinet table, the pile of papers beside him. I was gestured towards the single chair directly opposite him.

Dr Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici
Dr.Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici

Prime Minister Bonnici’s first question was to ask what I thought of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s article in that day’s Financial Times. Gulp.

I hastily explained that I had been traveling all day and had had no time to read all the papers. He nodded and slid the FT, open at the page, across the table to me. I read Thatcher’s words in a blur and muttered some possibly disapproving but probably anodyne words. They seemed to go down well enough.

I cannot remember how the rest of the conversation went as I explained the work of GLEB and stumbled through my unformed plans for the days ahead. Bonnici clearly approved and suddenly clapped his hands and instructed his aide that I was to have a military driver and access all areas, including Malta’s strategic dockyards. I was utterly non-plussed but glad it was all over.

Offering my sincere thanks I rose and prepared to leave, but another gesture indicated that an official photograph was to be taken. This was too much. How would I get out of this? I knew this would be Dionysius’s doing – he loved pictorial evidence of Peace Lab activities.

With no knowledge of the correct protocols I went over to Bonnici’s aide and pointed out that I was not wearing a tie. “It would be disrespectful to be photographed with the Prime Minister improperly dressed,” I pleaded. He inclined his head and to my relief went over to Bonnici and whispered in his ear.

The Peace Lab party who were becoming rather agitated. but imagine my embarrassment when the Prime Minister looked over and very deliberately removed his tie. He smiled, and everyone else followed suit. Photos were taken and normality was restored. Relief all round.

I have never been so glad to get out of a room.

Over the next few days I toured the celebrated dockyards to which few strangers were normally admitted, visited many different firms and talked with innumerable people. But it was the maverick style of my chauffeur that really sticks in my mind.

Like the time, or was it times, he drove like the clappers against the traffic through a tunnel beneath Valletta. My heart was in my mouth as he ignored the blaring horns of his opponents. No doubt emboldened by the fact the had been ordered by the Prime Minister to escort this hack around the island he would brook no interference.

Recounting my terrifying experience to Fr Paul later, I asked “Which side of the road do your normally drive on in Malta?”

“In the shade,” was his unforgettable reply.

Back home I duly wrote up my notes and submitted a report proposing curriculum changes, co-operative development and infrastructural investments. At GLEB my immediate boss John Palmer and the Director Alan McGarvey felt we had enough on our hands in London without diverting resources to a tiny Mediterranean island, however socialist its intentions.

However Fr Paul let me know that my report to the Peace Lab had been circulated to Maltese Embassies around the world in an effort to attract investment. I have no idea if it had any impact, but I did notice that by 1987 the running of the historic dockyards was in the hands of a Workers’ Council.

Mike J

Journalist, trainer, editor; storyteller; amateur historian.

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