Malta was thrown into mourning today with the passing away of Guido de Marco, who served the country as President, minister, deputy leader of the Nationalist Party and a leading lawyer in the Criminal Court. He was 79.

Prof de Marco was rushed to Mater Dei Hospital this afternoon after collapsing in his home in Sliema, just two days after having been taken there from hospital, where he had appeared to have recovered from complications.

Prof de Marco will be remembered as one of Malta's best political orators and a fierce defender of his views, but his main strength was the respect he always showed to his foes, a characteristic which was to serve him well in his careers in politics and the law courts.

He served as President between 1999 and 2004, instilling energy in the Presidency, but he will be best remembered for his service as minister.

As Minister of Justice and Home Affairs with the election of the Nationalist Party in 1987 he had the difficult task of restoring credibility to the police force at a time when the force was accused of involvement in the beatings, and even the murder, of people under arrest. His success was not without come criticism for his methods from people on his side of the political fence.

The Police Academy which he set up to train all policemen in policing and human rights, remains a memorial of his time at the helm.

As minister of justice and a former leading lawyer in human rights cases, Prof de Marco also piloted legislation to better protect human rights, and he set about raising the number of judges and magistrates at the law court as the government started to deal with the huge backlog of cases at the law courts.

Within a few years he took over from his friend Censu Tabone as foreign minister and reached one of the milestones of his political life when he submitted the application for Malta to join the European Union on July 16, 1990, a date he picked himself because it marked the feast of Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Valletta, where he was born and bred - his father used to run St Rocco public baths at Marsamxett.

During the same year he became the only Maltese to serve as President of the General Assembly of the United Nations, a particularly turbulent period in view of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.

Kuwaiti government recognition of his work was expressed once more only a few weeks ago when Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi visited the country.

As President of the United Nations he visited a Palestinian refugee fund and got caught up in a gunfight, but no one in his party was injured.

He was to have another brush with death in 2001 during a visit to Bulgaria as President, when a trailer ploughed into his car. One of his escorts was killed and several others who were in another car, including a Maltese photographer, were seriously injured.

Prof de Marco's efforts to get Malta into the European Union were dashed when the Labour government in 1996 put Malta's application on hold.

But back as foreign minister in 1998, he was in Brussels within hours to reactivate it.

It was far from being a formality and his ‘politics of persuasion' came into play.

Many senior EU officials viewed Malta with suspicion and wondered whether Malta followed ‘switch-on, switch-off policies'.

And even when Malta's membership bid got on the rails again, other hurdles loomed. A British politician, for example, told him that he could not understand how Malta expected to have the same voting rights as his own country, or Germany. To which Prof de Marco, never at a loss for words, said he only needed to see the voting rights of the UK vis-a-vis the United States in the United Nations.

With the political ground for Malta's EU membership smoothed, it was for Joe Borg, de Marco's successor at the foreign minister, to tackle the mostly technical issues as de Marco was nominated to the Presidency. It was not an Office he had sought, but he embraced it nonetheless.

He employed his well known cross-party skills to rally the country around the highest office. His crowning moment was when he accompanied Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami for the signing of the instruments of accession to the EU.

His appointment as President after 33 years in Parliament meant his resignation from the Nationalist Party, in which he had served for most of his political life.

His first foray into politics had actually been within the Democratic Nationalist Party but he quickly broke ranks with Herbert Ganado because of differences on such basic issues, particularly Independence.

George Borg Olivier welcomed him in the PN with open arms and he went on to serve under him as general secretary. De Marco was elected to Parliament for the first time in 1966 and it was a bitter-sweet moment - his father died as he listened to the counting of votes on cable radio. Borg Olivier remained a role model for him and he admitted that one of the saddest moments in his life was when he told his leader that it was time to go. The subsequent leadership battle was a contest between de Marco and Eddie Fenech Adami, two friends since the time they were secondary school students at St Aloysius College.

Fenech Adami edged out in front, and after that de Marco remained his faithful lieutenant, always by his side as Malta went through some of the darkest moments of its political history, including the violence in the tear-gas filled Tal-Barrani and the shooting of Raymond Caruana.

This was also de Marco's finest hour as a criminal defence lawyer - he defended Peter Paul Busuttil in the infamous frame-up which threw the police force in the abyss which he then, as minister, had to pull it out from.

And as this drama was going on, another drama was unfolding elsewhere as he had talks with Dom Mintoff, the Labour warhorse, on the need to amend the Constitution to prevent a repetition of the 1981 electoral result - and possible bloodshed. It was a process which actually started a few years previously when President Agatha Barbara used to convene meetings of party representatives at San Anton - what de Marco called the sibtijiet flimkien meetings - after the popular TV show of the time.

Dr Fenech Adami had nominated de Marco, Censu Tabone and Ugo Mifsud Bonnici to represent the PN. No breakthroughs were achieved until the 11th hour before the 1987 election, when the majority clause finally made it to the Constitution, along with clauses on neutrality and non-alignment which Mintoff had insisted upon.

Fiery and belligerent, Dom Mintoff could not be more different than Guido de Marco, and the saying that opposites attract could not be more apt. De Marco spent hours sitting on the Labour benches in Parliament chatting with Mr Mintoff on anything under the sun, not least on foreign policy, where they had common ground on Mediterranean and Middle-East affairs.

Senior Labour figures including Alfred Sant, were later to blame de Marco for swinging Mintoff against their government in 1998. De Marco retorted that Mintoff never needed anyone to push him anywhere.

But the two remained friends well into their political retirement and sometimes had long telephone conversations. Retirement was not easy for a man who frequently said he loved the sunrise, not the sunset. His mantle as a politician was passed on to his son Mario and all his children succeeded him as lawyers.

The older de Marco, let down by his health, wrote his autobiography - The Politics of Persuasion (published by Progress Press) and kept himself involved in public life as best he could. He used to host ambassadors to dinners and headed the Commonwealth Foundation.

He leaves to mourn him his wife Violet and children Giannella, Fiorella and Mario.

Video shows Prof de Marco speaking about his book The Politcs of Persuasion.

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