As he walks out of his office as Nationalist Party deputy leader, a disillusioned Robert Arrigo says the pain the party caused him over the last two years is worse than the pain he feels from the cancer he was diagnosed with five weeks ago.
“I gave everything to the party, down to my very health, and I am so hurt to see my party going down like this,” he said.
The 67-year-old entrepreneur, MP and former Sliema mayor claims he started to be sidelined the day after Bernard Grech was elected leader in 2020.
“Bernard Grech asked me to meet him at his home a few days before the election between him and Adrian Delia. I was still going to vote for Delia and I made this clear to him, because I never want to vote any leader out of office. But he asked me to give him ideas on how we can bring about unity in the party,” he recalled.
“Then, the day after he was elected leader, on the Monday, he called me in again and told me he was going to shift the responsibility of the party finances, which I held, onto someone else.
“He told me he would do the same with the house visits programme that I had started and the schemes and memberships I was in charge of.”
I used to have an office teeming with people. Within 15 days of that meeting, my office emptied completely- Robert Arrigo
Arrigo would soon realise he had virtually nothing left to do.
“I used to have an office teeming with people. Within 15 days of that meeting, my office emptied completely,” he said.
“I continued to open the office for 15 days, hoping there would be something for me to do, but it was a clear sign that they didn’t need me anymore. The writing was on the wall.”
Arrigo said that period two years ago was the beginning of his marginalisation from the party, and it only got worse over time. He claims the party leadership told him he was only useful for raising money.
When asked whether that included Grech, he said, “well, Bernard Grech is part of the leadership”.
He was occasionally forbidden from accessing certain areas of party clubs, had no access to information, was not included in meetings and he was completely pushed aside during this year’s election campaign.
“I was never given the chance to give a press conference and was never seen. I was completely excluded from the campaign.
“After being elected five consecutive times as mayor and another five consecutive times as an MP, four of which I got elected from two districts, I thought I had something more to contribute to the party I love.
“I was treated just as a candidate on the 9th and 10th districts, but not as a deputy leader.”
He said he continued to work and remained loyal to the party while continuously voicing his pain and concerns within the party structures as well as Grech. But nothing ever got better.
Now that he is leaving office, he feels the need to tell people the truth, he said.
“The people deserve to know the truth, and that speech at the headquarters last weekend and my Facebook profile were my only voice,” he said.
“It hurts too much to see my own party going down like this, and this was the only way left to do something.”
He has no intention of resigning from parliament or party though. He acknowledges Grech trusted him with the tourism shadow portfolio, which he appreciates and intends to keep as long as Grech wants him to.
“I will never abandon the party. My family boasts of a 100-year history in this party.
“The shield (il-maduma) never harmed anyone. It is we the people, including myself, who do the harm,” he said.
“I will continue to work in whichever way I can for the PN. A far-reaching, soul-searching exercise must lead us to humbly accept the huge electoral defeat and guide the way forward. But things must change. Even if Bernard Grech stays, action must be taken.”
It was too early to decide whether he would contest another election. His health problems were rendering his future very uncertain, he said.
He could not vouch for David Agius’ experience as deputy leader but he said “hundreds” of other people had been sidelined over the past two years and they should be believed when they go public with their experiences inside the party.
“I don’t remember the PN ever fighting with this many people.”
‘Delia should not be leader again’
Arrigo took office as deputy leader shortly after Adrian Delia was elected leader in 2017. He was openly supportive of Delia at the most turbulent moments of his leadership and even voted for him in the leadership election won by Grech.
However, Arrigo does not think Delia should be leader again.
“Adrian Delia and Bernard Grech were both voted into office by the majority of the people. People wanted them. But experience has taught us that the next leader cannot be an outsider.
“The next leader must be forged in the party nursery.”
He said some of the younger, newcomer MPs would make fine leaders and be the fresh blood that must replace him and the older generation. He nodded to the sound of Alex Borg, Darren Carabott and Mark Anthony Sammut, saying they possess very good leadership qualities.
“Joseph Muscat hadn’t even reached 40 when he became prime minister,” he said.
And Roberta Metsola, now serving as European Parliament president would also fit the job brilliantly, he added.
After the PN’s abysmal election result last March, Arrigo had controversially uploaded a social media post saying: “Please help us Roberta”. During the interview he said he could imagine her as PN leader after her tenure as EP President is over in 2024.
He acknowledged the divide between the factions of Delia and Grech were wide following the leadership election, but thanks to efforts on both sides, tensions eventually subsided and the situation today was much healthier.
A reprimand, at best
Asked about the report into Naxxar mayor Anne Marie Muscat Fenech Adami’s conduct, Arrigo said this had been concluded six months ago but Grech lied about it on national television, saying it had not yet been concluded, because he was uncomfortable publishing its result.
Grech has denied the claim, first made last week by Arrigo, who later demanded the leader’s resignation.
“The probe concluded that the party should, at best, issue a reprimand to the mayor. A reprimand, at best; a yellow card,” Arrigo said, adding that this would not have gone down well after Grech had tried to force her out of the party.
Last December, Muscat Fenech Adami voted in favour of a massive complex on the parking lot of the former trade fair grounds, despite the PN saying it had instructed her to vote against.
It later emerged she was a company secretary in a firm partly owned by the project architect. Grech then tried to force the mayor out of the party but she defied him, prompting him to request an ethics probe.
Arrigo said four weeks before the general election he had advised the party not to go public with the report. But he then expected the party to publish it after the election.
On Thursday, the PN issued a brief statement saying its administrative council had discussed the Naxxar case and decided on a way forward.
‘€800,000 profit for two years’
After the party had received a letter from the VAT department a year ago, Arrigo says he is afraid that inspectors might one day show up outside his house and grab €200,000 worth of objects, to make up for the tax arrears that the party still owes.
“For two years, in 2018 and 2019, the party made €800,000 in profits. So, I struck a deal with the VAT department that would allow us to slowly pay the party’s arrears over 10 years,” he explained.
“It seems like that deal was not honoured by the people who took over the finances from me and this letter was holding me accountable for part of the debts. Others received letters like it.”
“I was promised a solution. A year has passed. Nobody came back to me. As I was sidelined even from finance, I don’t have any information.”
All in all, Arrigo remains hopeful.
“There is a solution for every problem in this world. The PN was Malta’s solution for many years and it can become that solution again.”
‘I saw death, I spoke with death’
Robert Arrigo said he had a close encounter with death when he was in hospital last year, and just five weeks ago he was diagnosed with cancer.
Last September, he developed an infection that landed him in the ITU for 10 days.
Doctors told the family he did not have much time to live.
“I saw death, I spoke with death,” he said, recalling a few moments during which he believes he had a near-death experience.
“I might have been dead for a few minutes. I remember seeing a bridge going upwards, surrounded by a very bright light. I started walking up the bridge, when a faceless person came to me and told me, ‘This is not your time’.
“I then remember waking up and the hospital consultant told me, ‘welcome back’.”
“Thank God, the bridge was pointing upwards, not downwards,” he said, half-jokingly.
Eventually, he recovered and by the end of the year had returned to his duties.
As summer approached and he sensed he would have more free time to enjoy life and his family, he decided to go for a routine medical check-up, wanting to put his mind at rest.
“Doctors told me I have a tumour in three different places in my lower abdomen. Two of them have been manageable so far but the third is trickier and giving me a hard time.
“It was a shock. This was five or six weeks ago.”
Arrigo started chemotherapy on July 4.
“I feel fine today, but two days this week were particularly painful. The pain was non-stop.”
He said that while he may have caught a glimpse of what there is on the other side, he still fears death a lot and worries about it, now that he is fighting another serious battle with illness.
“When they told me I have cancer I thought I was prepared. I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready for the pain and I still fear death,” he said.
“But I look forward to life and to some philanthropic projects that I’m working on.”