It is among the shortest words in the English language, but when Dom Mintoff uttered ‘No’ in Parliament 20 years ago today in a vote linked to confidence in the Labour government of the time, the consequences were as dramatic as they were long-lasting. Christopher Scicluna reports.

The vote was over a motion for Dockyard Creek to be converted into a modern yacht marina and for the government to engage a consortium to run it.

But former Labour prime minister Dom Mintoff, 81, would have none of it, arguing it would not benefit the people of Cottonera. 

Many viewed it as more a case of animosity with Prime Minister Alfred Sant, who insisted he would not be held to ransom.

Tension between the two had been rising for months, to the extent that Mr Mintoff had even abstained in crucial Budget votes the previous November (1997).

The government, barely a year old and having only a one-seat majority, was only saved by the votes of the Speaker.  

In March Mr Mintoff had abstained on an Opposition motion against the government’s foreign policy but later joined the government in defeating an Opposition no-confidence motion. At the time he said he did not want to bring the government down.

It was only a short reprieve. In May he missed votes in Parliament on a loan Bill because he was in Libya meeting Muammar Gaddafi. Again, the Speaker saved the day.

Then the Cottonera development issue came up. On June 8, Mr Mintoff voted against the plans, and a government resolution was defeated.

On the following day, an angry Dr Sant held a now-famous public meeting in Vittoriosa, where he accused the old firebrand of having more friends among dictators than democrats.

Dom Mintoff (right) following Parliamentary proceedings during Dr Sant’s premiershipDom Mintoff (right) following Parliamentary proceedings during Dr Sant’s premiership

More friends among dictators than democrats

He warned that the government could not continue in a situation where it was subject to blackmail and demanded Mr Mintoff’s resignation from Parliament.

This was the first time that Mr Mintoff had been called a ‘traitor’, and he was not one to take such insults lightly.

He refused to budge, though he said he did not want an early general election.

On June 14, one Joseph Muscat, a Labour Party journalist (now Malta’s Prime Minister) penned an article, ‘Better a day as a lion than 100 days as a sheep’, and said an early election would be a “win-win situation” for Labour.

Dr Sant called Mr Mintoff’s bluff: when the motion on the Cottonera project came before Parliament once more, he linked it to a confidence vote in the government.

He warned that if the motion was defeated, he would dissolve Parliament and call fresh elections, because the government could not be blackmailed or threatened by anyone.

Political tension gripped Malta. People huddled around radios to hear live transmissions from Parliament. The World Cup was relegated to second-fiddle status.

Mr Mintoff, never one to blink, demanded that Dr Sant retract the accusations against him. He said that the vote should not be linked to confidence and he would abstain if it were.

Former Labour leader Alfred Sant on the campaign trail ahead of the 1996 electionFormer Labour leader Alfred Sant on the campaign trail ahead of the 1996 election

But Dr Sant did not blink either.

On the evening of July 7, when the crucial vote was taken, rather than abstaining, Mr Mintoff voted against the government.

There was an uproar in the House, and some Labour MPs almost came to blows. Minister Joe Debono Grech grabbed Mr Mintoff before being pulled away. 

Dr Sant summoned an extraordinary Labour general conference and sought approval for a motion calling for a general election.

Deputy leader (later President of Malta) George Abela shocked those present by insisting that this course of action was not in the national interest and if the motion were approved, he would resign.

The motion was still approved overwhelmingly, and Dr Abela resigned shortly thereafter.

The Labour government tried to hobble on, but it could not function, especially after Mr Mintoff voted in Parliament against several clauses to set up the Malta Tourism Authority.

Dr Sant told people to have a cool and relaxed summer. It was anything but

The House was adjourned to October, and Dr Sant told people to have a cool and relaxed summer. It was anything but.

After weeks of speculation about possible mediation efforts, Dr Sant on August 3 called a general election for September 5.

The die was cast. Labour lost the election. It also lost the following two. Mr Mintoff’s simple ‘No’ changed the country’s course like no other act in Malta’s recent past.

Dr Sant’s government had ‘frozen’ Malta’s application to join the European Union. The new Nationalist government defrosted it, cooked up an acquis with the bloc and served it to the people in a national referendum. It was a meal which Dr Sant found so unpalatable, he campaigned vigorously against it. The people liked it, however, and Malta joined the EU.

Twenty years on, Labour is firmly in the saddle and a champion of Malta’s position at the EU table. And it all started with a ‘No’.

'I did what I had to do' - Sant

Approached for comment, Dr Sant, now an MEP, said it was a practice not to discuss the events publicly, though he said he planned to eventually give a full account of them, "from my perspective of course".

However, he stressed that in July 1998, he felt he did "what I had to do, in the interests of Malta and the Labour Party. I still believe this 100 percent."

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