As a historian who has spent more than 40 years researching the final 20 years of Malta’s colonial period, I cannot allow to go uncorrected some important historical inaccuracies contained in the excerpt from Rev. Mark Montebello’s biography, The Tail that Wagged the Dog. The Life and Struggles of Dom Mintoff 1916-2012 (The Sunday Times of Malta, July 11).

Montebello claims that Mintoff resigned on December 14, 1957, due to “a seemingly impertinent letter” from the Admiralty Section of the GWU “which showed a lack of confidence in his leadership”. The facts were rather different.

With the livelihood of thousands of dockyard workers uncertain, the Admiralty Section called a national (that is non-partisan) protest rally at the Floriana Granaries to be followed by a silent march in Valletta.

The last GWU speaker, section president Joe Borg, ended his address by announcing the acceptance of Mintoff’s request to read a telegram that he had just received from the Colonial Secretary, Lennox-Boyd.

After Mintoff read the telegram, including the news that there was no “question of closing the dockyard overnight”, he delivered a partisan speech before calling off the silent march and sending everybody home.

The Admiralty Section, aggrieved that Mintoff’s partisan address would hamper future calls for national protests and by his unilateral cancelling of the silent march, complained that he had “considered it fit to refer to particular sections of the crowd by distinguishing political supporters”, thus “exceeding the hospitality accorded” to him which was “all the more regrettable as, under prevailing circumstances, it was never expected”.

Mintoff played the card of ‘indispensability’ by interpreting the letter as lack of confidence in his leadership. He threatened to resign unless it was withdrawn.

The Admiralty Section replied that it was “hardly fair to expect [them] to reconsider [their] attitude under a threat of that magnitude, coming from a friendly source” and stood by their original letter, whereupon Mintoff resigned.

At the news, hostile pro-Mintoff demonstrators assembled in front of the GWU building and the homes of members of the executive of the Admiralty Section. The intimidation broke the executive members’ nerve. They withdrew the letter and Mintoff withdrew his resignation in the knowledge that he had consolidated his grip on the GWU.

Montebello writes that police commissioner Vivian de Gray refused to obey Mintoff’s order to restrain the police in dealing with violent labour demonstrators. De Gray refused to withdraw the mounted police or stop the use of truncheons, arguing that he would otherwise be unable to guarantee public safety.

Mintoff instantly dismissed him but governor Robert Laycock rescinded Mintoff’s orders and de Gray’s dismissal. Montebello labels this “a serious breach of Malta’s constitutional rights by the governor”, apparently unaware that, under the 1947 constitution,  the prime minister was ultimately responsible for public order and the governor for public safety. De Gray’s and Laycock’s actions were constitutionally correct. Later, Laycock dismissed ministers when Mintoff repeatedly declined to guarantee public order.

The GWU called a general protest strike for April 28, 1958, which marauding MLP supporters turned into a day of rioting.

Montebello writes, incorrectly, that Mintoff left home at 4am determined to prevent trouble but was “unable to dissuade some Ħamrun Labour stalwarts from preparing to hijack the strike to stir up trouble”.

Montebello describes Mintoff’s 1958 resignation as his greatest mistake. Organising the April 28 riots was worse- Joseph Pirotta

Meanwhile, Mintoff is said to have relayed information to the police and urged people to quietly return home.

Ġużé Cassar, the justice minister in Mintoff’s cabinet, told me in a recorded interview: “The 28 April disturbances were organised. The [party] executive nominated an action committee of five or six [persons], among whom were myself, Mintoff, Notary Abela, Dr Hyzler and others… We agreed the time and met at 4.00am in order to place those who were to organise action at the different places… to attack police stations… [but]… we wanted to avoid as far as possible people being injured.”

In another recorded interview, Joe Attard Kingswell revealed that, later in the day, Laycock informed Mintoff that “unless the incidents stopped by five o’clock, he would order out the commandos”.

Mintoff apprised Attard Kingswell of Laycock’s message asking him “to do something in order to send word to those involved”. Attard Kingswell replied that he had “not ordered their action” and that “if Mintoff wanted to stop them he should stop them himself”, which he did.

Montebello describes Mintoff’s 1958 resignation as his greatest mistake. Organising the April 28 riots was worse. It led to the loss of the constitution and to the British keeping him at arm’s length. It brought him to the humiliating position of proposing to Lieutenant Governor Trafford Smith on May 3 that if HMG agreed to early elections, the MLP would “discuss the party programme before it [was] launched”.

Laycock’s and Trafford Smith’s advice to London was to let him stew in his own juice.

We are also told that, as early as August 1956, “Dom saw independence as the only alternative if the plan for an integrated Anglo-Maltese responsibility of local reserved matters failed”.

Wrong on two counts.

Mintoff’s integration plan stipulated that defence and foreign affairs, reserved matters, were to remain Westminster’s preserve. Mintoff favoured integration because he foresaw a bleak future for an independent Malta. He told his economic adviser, Lord Balogh on January 30, 1957: “Should integration fail, and by some miracle Malta were to become independent, then we shall have to follow the same policy adopted in India, China, Yugoslavia and other socialist countries where people had to be content with very low standards of living until industrialisation got under way.”

That was possible because those countries worked within a planned socialist economy.

As he told the Colonial Office on February 21, 1957, “if Malta had any chance of becoming viable by her own efforts, there was no reason why she should integrate”.

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