Quite a number of police investigations and judicial proceedings, many related to ‘sensitive’ cases, take a long time before they come to some resolution, if at all. A norm seems to be stalemates gene­rated by the opaque and slack conduct of processes. Cases end up forgotten in limbo, crossed out as key actors die, or fitfully remembered in the wake of new tangles.

To be sure, delay occurs over a wide range of legal dossiers. Malta is in the bottom rungs in Europe for the time courts take to hear and clear cases.

Long timelines also prevail in similar procedures right across Europe, such as in Spain to cover widespread bribery within the Popular Party. In France, investigations into former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s skulduggery and worse spanned more than a decade and a half. Still that is no consolation for why and how certain types of criminal cases get sidelined here.

Those who regularly indulge in media doom and gloom, plus misereres, put the blame on a deterioration of the rule of law since 2013. The truth is that the way by which serious criminal cases remain in the pending tray is a systemic phenomenon, going way back to colonial times, probably earlier.

To a large extent, the problem is endemic. The lack of transparency, speed and effective results in investigations has mainly benefitted the power elites of the day. While these have morphed, expanded and diversified, the mechanisms of their influence, visible and underground, have persisted and ‘modernised’.

Yet, an abiding characteristic of the power elite’s influence always was its fragility. It could be undermined or amputated quite easily. In colonial times, the goodwill of the ruling power could not be taken for granted. For the latter could and did adopt arbitrary and opaque ways of governance, justified by the claim that the islands functioned as a fortress.

Actually, the power elite deve­loped two main approaches by which to maintain its influence.

One was an enhanced solidarity within the network of family, Church, professional, commercial and ‘friendly’ relations that bound together the elite membership. This happened around the three clusters of Church, professional and commercial relations, with the last two eventually becoming the fundamental columns.

Given that, numerically, the elite was such a small group, solidarity covered most of the spectrum of social life by way of beliefs, political assessments, mindsets, interests, friendships – and it could be total. However, it needed to be flexible in order to accommodate political and social change.

On this front, co-optation to its ranks of new elements that, if ignored, could threaten the ongoing solidarity has been the game. This occurred in different waves – post-Independence; during the first Dom Mintoff administration of the 1970s; during the early Eddie Fenech Adami administrations with new blood from the construction and financial services sectors; post-EU membership; and since 2013.

Delay has become ingrained in the island’s administrative, police and judicial practices- Alfred Sant

The networks, all attached to some form of local power and wealth accumulation, that supply the personnel for this elite have, over the years, remained both tight and supple. They permeate the structures of both political parties.

All this implies Masonic-cum-Mafia systems, if you like.

However, the concentrated pejorative understanding of those terms hides complex social, cultural and religious practices, not all of them malevolent, brought to bear on situations that could destabilise the power elite or shake up society.

For beyond the solidarity, the second approach by which the power elite safeguarded its influence has been an ability to navigate around what one could consider to be criminal activity and this in its widest possible meaning. In small communities, very frequently, the divide bet­ween permissible and non-permissible behaviour is quite fine, both on a personal basis as well as along family/civil/commercial dimensions. This becomes more acute in a colonial-type situation under which the rule of law, as run by the colonial power, is either contested or seen as partly illegitimate.

The margins within which illegal behaviour can be tolerated, overlooked, justified or protected widen, especially if family or elite interests are threatened. The power elite has the power (and skills) to achieve this, especially when its interests are threatened by any ongoing criminal development.

Which is not the same as saying the power elite is made up of crooks. However, one only needs to look up the murky episodes over, say, the last two centuries, embedded in Malta’s social and economic (not to mention political) history, to understand that matters were not as straightforward as is assumed.          

Police and judicial functions (some members of which form part of the elite) operate within this framework. They must satisfy the formal, imperative requirements of the law as set out in the statute books. But they’re also guided by the inherited practices and procedures of past precedents set by generations used to balance the formal requirements of the law and the informally established but equally imperative requirements of power elite culture and interests.

In consequence, a standing modus vivendi has become the mechanism of delay played out in ‘techniques’ accumulated and legitimised over decades. They are operational, procedural, legal and informal, only rarely blatant in scope and presentation.

Sure, the political overhang undoubtedly exists. Still, the real moving forces are deeper than that. Because of them, the power elite has shown, when necessary, that it is possible to reconcile political contradictions.

Delay in all its forms is what reconciles the clash of demands arising between the best practice of police investigative and judicial norms and the need to safeguard the life space of the power elite. Delay has become ingrained in the island’s administrative, police and judicial practices – whence too the weakness of enforcement systems.

It’s all in a day’s work.

Alfred Sant is a Labour MEP and former prime minister.

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