What makes an inquiry too long? It depends on which inquiry you’re talking about, and who’s doing the talking.

It has taken around three- and-a-half years to conclude the magisterial inquiry into the alleged kickbacks between Brian Tonna and Keith Schembri. For the Labour machine, that’s a sign of justice taking the necessary time.

“The institutions are working.” Even if, in this case, the “working institutions” have to include the Attorney General’s Office, which then did nothing. In 2017, the police already had the evidence needed, according to Daphne Caruana Galizia, who broke the story in April that year.

Oh, and there’s that muscular institution, the Cabinet of Ministers. They were all working so hard that they failed to notice the incongruous details of the case.

The revelations were based on a leaked FIAU report. It named sums, origins and account details. It considered the explanation offered by Tonna and Schembri – return of a loan to help out with a marital settlement – and found it made no sense. No trace of the loan.

Soon it was public knowledge that the date of the ‘loan’ didn’t fit the excuse. And, even if it did, accountants cannot take a loan from a client. Tonna resigned from the Malta Institute of Accountants, a truly working institution, when it began the process to consider his case.

Anyway, three-and-a-half years is what it took to investigate a mysterious loan between two men. If that’s what you need to be careful and painstaking, so be it.

In that case, how long does the Caruana Galizia inquiry need to see if the State – with its botanical garden of institutions – lived up to its responsibility to do all it could to protect her life?

For Robert Abela, 12 months is more than enough. As far as he’s concerned, the inquiry is a failed experiment.

Experiment? Public inquiries are an established instrument used by many states. The length of time they take varies, depending on the issue. In the UK, over the last 25 years, many have lasted just a few months. But some, especially those that investigate state complicity, can take years.

One relevant case is the car-bomb murder of Rosemary Nelson, a human rights solicitor, by terrorists in Northern Ireland. The inquiry opened in 2005 and reported in 2011.

The inquiry was tasked with finding if there was any state complicity (in particular from the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the army or MI5) in facilitating her murder. No evidence was found but the inquiry did not exclude that individual members of state forces may have helped the perpetrators.

One of the issues was whether RUC officers had helped dehumanise Nelson and “legitimise her as a target in the eyes of loyalist terrorists”. The inquiry said they had – on evidence that the RUC had publicly abused and assaulted her, as well as made threatening remarks about her, which became publicly known.

Why did the inquiry take years, not months? Because it’s a grave matter to accuse the state of any kind of complicity, even indirect, in murder. The case needs to be made carefully, in recognition of the weight of the charges.

An inquiry’s board of judges might not pass sentences but its report is concerned with justice. The recognition of injustice functions to restore some justice to the victims and, hopefully, the report’s conclusions will serve to avoid future acts of injustice.

If the judges are taking their time, it’s because they’re serious. They would lack seriousness if they criticised the people in positions of authority without hearing what they have to say- Ranier Fsadni

So, when our prime minister decides what is worth knowing for the inquiry, he’s really saying the details of its eventual report, the strength of the case it builds, don’t really matter. He’s already discounting it – portraying it as politics, not justice.

The Caruana Galizia inquiry is working largely as it would in countries where, to coin a phrase, the institutions are working. It’s Abela who is dysfunctional. For in what functioning realm of justice does a defendant (the head of a government in the dock) and a hostile witness (Glenn Bedingfield) snap at the judges that they need to wrap up?

If that principle is accepted, what prevents the state in future cases from running out the clock? Oh, wait. That is transparently what many of the government’s men have sought to do – be completely uncooperative about what they know, hoping for a generic criticism in which everyone and no one is blamed.

If the judges are taking their time, it’s because they’re serious. They would lack seriousness if they criticised the people in positions of authority without hearing what they have to say.

But, for Abela and friends, that’s precisely what is so wrong with the inquiry. The men of government don’t want to be obliged to say anything. Whenever they’ve spoken, they’ve embarrassed themselves with their timidity, cupidity and stupidity.

They tell us they believed Muscat when he told them he felt betrayed over Panamagate – only two months after he told the rest of us that he had long known about Konrad Mizzi’s secret company and saw nothing wrong in it.

They say Mizzi took political responsibility by resigning as Labour deputy leader – as though his prime fault was that he got Labour, not the country, in trouble. 

Above all, they continue to justify themselves. With the partial exception of Evarist Bartolo, not one recognises they failed in carrying out their responsibilities. Because they were silent when it mattered, they want the inquiry to fall silent too.

For that is the inquiry’s mortal sin. Not the time it’s taking but its principal discovery.

The Daphne inquiry began as a quest for men of responsibility and gravitas. Alas, all it has found is a stable of gravitasses.


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