The debate about establishing one national day for Malta, promoted by the head of State and others, is indeed healthy and long overdue. The proposal by my friend, Balzan Labour councillor Desmond Zammit Marmarà, that Independence Day (21 September) be established by law as our national day, reflects political courage and decency.
Certain historical facts, however, have to be established as a background for a proper debate which will hopefully lead to a conclusion based on consensus.
In 1965, a Nationalist government passed the National Day Act establishing September 21 as Malta’s national day.
The Labour Opposition voted in favour and even suggested that September 8 should be abolished as a holiday and absorbed into September 21! (Sitting: September 1, 1965). For seven years there was no controversy on the issue even though Labour had a critical view of the conditions attached to the Independence Constitution and the Defence Treaty with Britain.
As soon as Labour was elected to power in June 1971, it abolished Independence Day not only as a national day, but also as national holiday. This provoked the Nationalist Opposition to hold its own political commemoration once the authorities of the time refused to do so.
September 21 as national day would after all only establish what both parties had accepted prior to 1971
Demonstrations in Valletta on Independence Day, which was a normal working day, attracted thousands of Nationalist supporters; most of these demonstrations used to be invariably disrupted by well-known Labour thugs who used to assemble in front of the Republic Street Labour Party club.
For three years the Mintoff government, having removed Independence Day from the calendar, strove to find an alternative date: it chose September 8 (which in 1965 it wanted to abolish!) just to spite the Nationalist Opposition and to find a pretext to remove the very national day which it had approved in Opposition.
Once Malta became a Republic, December 13 was declared as the national day; and September 8 was removed and not even retained as a public holiday.
For Labour it had served its purpose and was no longer needed.
When the lease of the Nato Base Agreement of 1972 expired on March 31, 1979, Freedom Day was launched commemorating the closure of the military base on the last day of March. We had a new national day.
For 16 years, Independence Day was not recognised as a public holiday let alone as a national day.
When the Nationalist Party was elected to government in 1987, the natural thing to do was to fulfill its electoral pledge and establish September 21 again as the national day.
In fact, a Bill to that effect was proposed in Parliament; it did not abolish December 13, or Freedom Day as public holidays; it retained them but proposed as national day the same date as the one in force in 1964-71: September 21.
Halfway through the parliamentary debate Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami proposed that Malta should not have a national day, but five national feasts. I am stressing this point and distinction because it is easy to be misinformed and state that Malta has five national days.
What some, under the misapprehension that we have five national days, fail to understand is that Fenech Adami was adopting a conciliatory approach by refusing to declare September 21 as a national day, and treating all the national feasts equally, none of them enjoying the title of national day.
Rather than “comic” I find this approach deserving praise. A conciliatory gesture by a caring prime minister free of any political revenge mentality.
That is still the position today. Declaring September 21 as national day would after all only establish what both parties had accepted prior to 1971.
Practically all Commonwealth countries have established as their national day the day they acquired independence, in virtue of which they became full members of the international community.
Why should Malta be the exception?
Tonio Borg is a former deputy prime minister and European commissioner.
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