Ugo Mifsud Bonnici,
Konvinzjoni u Esperjenza
Klabb Kotba Maltin, 2015. 1,217 pp.

President Emeritus Ugo Mifsud’s monumental autobiography is much more than a chronological and very detailed narration of his public life. Its three sections respectively cover his youth, legal career and entry into politics; his seven years as Minister of Education and, finally, his years as the fifth President of Malta (1994-99) and after. It provides a precious insight from a highly placed insider, and often a protagonist, into Malta’s recent political and social history.

The sheer scope of Mifsud Bonnici’s undertaking is impressive: there are about 250 short chapters dealing with almost as many different topics and aspects of his extraordinarily full life (the author celebrates his 83rd birthday today). The book’s value as a historical record and, indeed, as a research tool is undeniable.

Mifsud Bonnici comes from a distinguished family that has produced generations of politicians. Indeed, there has been a Mifsud Bonnici (or two or three) in the Maltese parliament ever since 1924, starting with his father Carmelo, known affectionately as Il-Gross, a Nationalist Party representative of his home town of Cospicua and the Cottonera.

Ugo was first elected in 1966, when still a young lawyer, as a Nationalist MP; he was returned at every election until 1992; two years later he became head of state. His cousin Antoine, a family doctor, was first elected in 1976 and later served in two Nationalist administrations; Antoine’s brother Karmenu, a lawyer, was made Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education before succeeding Dom Mintoff as prime minister and Labour Party leader in December 1984. Defeated in the 1987 election, he was Leader of the Opposition till 1992.

Finally, Ugo’s son Carmelo, also a lawyer like his two siblings, was first elected as a Nationalist MP in 1998; he subsequently served as Minister of the Interior (succeeding both his father and grandfather) and is now an Opposition MP.

It was thanks to his urging that a Nationalist Government in 1970 made secondary education free and compulsory for all

Ugo Mifsud Bonnici justly holds his father Carmelo in great reverence; he was, after all, a brilliant politician, journalist and man of letters who underwent many travails; he died in 1948 at the age of 51 after suffering a stroke five years earlier. His literary output has been published in a large volume patiently put together by Ugo and his elder brother Giuseppe, known as Jojo, a former Chief Justice.

Ugo and Jojo had a good Catholic upbringing. They also imbibed a sense of patriotism and a veritable fount of knowledge from their parents, who had planted the seeds of their sons’ vast cultural baggage.

Graduating as a lawyer in 1955, Ugo married Gemma Bianco in 1959. Although courted by various political parties to contest the 1962 election, he declined, and entered active politics only in 1966, when his family friend Antonio Paris and Nationalist MP from Cospicua (who had been Minister of Education) decided to call it a day.

Contesting the second district, an impregnable Labour stronghold, was a tough challenge for Ugo even though Cospicua was virtually his father’s fief before the war. His popularity as a lawyer must have also determined his electoral success.

Mifsud Bonnici soon began contributing regularly to the Nationalist Party’s newspapers becoming de facto editor of its organ, Il-Poplu. After that, his writing took off in earnest and he produced thousands of leading articles and opinion pieces, some of which he published in two books, an activity which continued well after he left the Presidency.

Mifsud Bonnici during a PN party meeting.Mifsud Bonnici during a PN party meeting.

Apart from his vast cultural de-pository, Mifsud Bonnici’s abiding interest is education, which he made his main mission in his political career. It was thanks to his urging that a Nationalist government in 1970 made secondary education free and compulsory for all, although as MP he also took an active interest in other areas.

Mifsud Bonnici gives pen portraits of George Borg Olivier’s Cabinet ministers from 1966 to 1971 and describes his attempts to make the administration more responsive to the needs and challenges of the day. He took an active part in starting the party’s daily newspaper and it was thanks to him that PN clubs were opened in Cospicua and Fgura.

The 1971 election was narrowly lost by the PN. Ugo pushed for a thorough reform of the party’s administrative set-up, and eventually became one of its leading figures. He took part in the talks with the Mintoff government which led to the adoption of a new republican Constitution in 1974.

After its second successive defeat in 1976, the Nationalist Party underwent further radical changes: Eddie Fenech Adami became the new leader, appointing a shadow cabinet with Ugo being made responsible for education.

Mifsud Bonnici describes Fenech Adami’s growing stature as party leader and his increasing effectiveness as leader of the Opposition, even as Mintoff’s government became more heavy-handed, culminating in the violence of Black Monday (October 15, 1979), which included an attack on Fenech Adami’s family at their home in Birkirkara and the burning down of the Times building.

It is not generally known that some years before, Dom Mintoff had offered Mifsud Bonnici a judgeship which, fortunately for Malta, he turned down.

The 1981 general election was bitterly fought; Ugo took part in several television debates, but the odds were skewed against the Nationalist Party, with the state broadcasting monopoly heavily biased against the opposition and, particularly, its leader Fenech Adami. Despite this, the PN obtained an absolute majority of the popular vote but, thanks to gerrymandering, only a minority of seats.

The result prompted the PN to boycott parliament in protest; it was only after Mintoff’s declaration that he was open to negotiations on electoral reform did the opposition take up their seats. Mifsud Bonnici took a leading role in the talks, which did not make much headway until the political violence took an ugly turn towards the end of 1986: Nationalist supporters attempting to hold a legally-sanctioned meeting in Żejtun were gassed by the police and pelted with stones by Labour supporters and, a few days later, a young Nationalist activist, Raymond Caruana, was shot and killed in cold blood at the party club in Gudja.

Within a few weeks, the two parties agreed on constitutional amendments ensuring majority rule. These enabled the PN to win the 1987 election, finally allowing Mifsud Bonnici to realise his ambition to become Minister of Education. He soon managed to win the loyalty and respect of his staff, many of whom he names, independently of their political persuasion. However, he faced a mountainous task as the Labour government had reduced the educational sector to a shambles, through its ill-advised ‘reforms’ and heavy-handed treatment of teachers.

One of Mifsud Bonnici’s main challenges was that of restoring the University of Malta’s autonomy and making it accessible to a much greater number of students; this necessitated expanding its facilities.

He removed Arabic as a compulsory subject in state secondary schools; introduced a new subject, Systems of Knowledge, to give pre-university students a wider culture; improved the conditions of instructors in trade schools; removed the over-reliance on English University school leaving examinations and introduced the University of Malta’s Matsec system; dealt with the complicated school transport problem, and undertook the building of halls to enable schools to hold their activities.

His portfolio included Culture. He quickly embarked on a programme of restoration projects, enlisting the help of the government school of masonry.

A major achievement was the Education Act of 1988, which Mifsud Bonnici himself drafted and which he explains in some detail here. This landmark legislation was necessary to restore order in this sector, by giving teachers a professional status, ensuring the survival of church schools and basically refounding the University of Malta.

The changes the PN government wanted to bring about in education necessarily involved negotiations with the church and, particularly with the Papal Nuncio, Pier Luigi Celata. In several chapters, Mifsud Bonnici brings out the tortuous and prickly nature of these negotiations regarding state subsidies to Church schools, the acquisition of Church property (not needed for pastoral purposes) to finance them, the return of the Faculty of Theology to the University of Malta, teachers of religion in state schools and various other matters.

An indispensable source of reference for those studying developments in Malta’s politics

Mifsud Bonnici is particularly proud of his brainchild, the Maritime Museum in the former Naval Bakery in Vittoriosa, but also of his other achievements, such as the setting up of the Council for Science and Technology; the upgrading of public libraries; the national archive at the old Santo Spirito hospital in Rabat; and relative legislation, the creation of nature reserves and the Environmental Protection Act of 1991; the celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of Malta’s independence; restoring balance in state broadcasting; the reform of special schools; and the setting up of the University of the Third Age. He explains, in detail, the reforms he undertook in secondary, trade and technical schools, offering students the chance to take up better and more rewarding careers.

Mifsud Bonnici had good relations with his fellow ministers, but he once offered to resign from cabinet because he had not sought its approval before signing an agreement with the teachers’ union regarding higher salaries. His offer was turned down.

In May 1990, in a Cabinet reshuffle occasioned by the death, at 38, of Pierre Muscat, parliamentary secretary for telecommunications, Mifsud Bonnici was given the added responsibility of Minister of Home Affairs, but also the help of two parliamentary secretaries – Stanley Zammit for the environment, lands and local councils, and Michael Frendo for broadcasting, consumer protection, sport, youth and culture.

Ugo Mifsud Bonnici exchanging documents with Papal Nuncio Mgr Pier Luigi Celata following the Church-State agreement about acquisition of Church property and state subsidies to Church schools.Ugo Mifsud Bonnici exchanging documents with Papal Nuncio Mgr Pier Luigi Celata following the Church-State agreement about acquisition of Church property and state subsidies to Church schools.

Mifsud Bonnici’s first challenge as minister responsible for the police came soon enough in the form of the first ever Papal visit to Malta later that month. There were other such challenges to come, among them the arrival of hundreds of Albanian refugees a year later.

Another major piece of legislation, which Mifsud Bonnici explains in detail and gives the reasoning behind, was the Broadcasting Act of 1990, which ended the State monopoly in broadcasting.

Comfortably re-elected in 1992, Mifsud Bonnici was confirmed Minister of Education, but shed Home Affairs, broadcasting, Lands and Culture, while keeping Museums and adding Labour, including the Employment and Training Corporation, with Joe Cassar as parliamentary secretary.

Mifsud Bonnici’s duties had an international dimension too: he hosted a meeting of European Ministers of Culture in Malta, and gave important speeches at international fora, such as Unesco and the Council of Europe.

When Ċensu Tabone’s term as President of Malta was about to expire in 1994, Fenech Adami asked Mifsud Bonnici to take over. Saying that he was taken aback at the proposal is an understatement, since this meant leaving his true calling as Minister of Education. He motivated his strong reluctance to accept by saying he had unfinished business to see to and initiatives he planned to take, even though he felt he had accomplished much of what he had set out to do as minister. After an attempt to agree with the Opposition on a non-political personality failed, Mifsud Bonnici had to bow to the inevitable.

It was to be an eventful presidency in more ways than one. His first task was to rehabilitate and upgrade the presidential palaces in Valletta, San Anton and Verdala. The first act Mifsud Bonnici signed into law was the one setting up the Commission for the Administration of Justice, which he was to chair as president. Mifsud Bonnici used to vet draft legislation very carefully when he was minister, and continued to do so as president, pointing out mistakes and inconsistencies.

Now, he had more time to catch up on his reading of literature, philosophy and history, continuing to accumulate his already vast cultural baggage. Indeed, I used to be amazed (and still am) at the facility with which he could speak expertly and authoritatively, without notes, on any subject and whatever the occasion – whether it was celebrating a foreign country’s national day, opening an art exhibition, launching a book, inaugurating a restored building or welcoming a distinguished foreign visitor.

Mifsud Bonnici describes his first State visit as president, following a long-held tradition, which he paid to the Vatican. Being received in audience, together with his wife Ġemma and family, by Pope John Paul II, was a moving experience. However, that visit had to be cut short because of the Um el Faroud tragedy, in which nine Maltese dockyard workers lost their lives in a gas explosion; as president, Ugo felt he had to be present at the funeral held in Paola’s parish church.

In mid-1996, Mifsud Bonnici tried to dissuade Fenech Adami from calling an early election but, citing an economic slowdown, caused by political uncertainty, the latter insisted. The election, held in October, was won by Labour.

A memorable occasion was to come a couple of months later, when Mifsud Bonnici was given an honorary doctorate by the Sorbonne in Paris for his contribution to education and culture

Talk of an eventful presidency. In May 1998, Ugo had to undergo a serious operation; he was still recovering in hospital when the Acting President, Jimmy Farrugia, informed him that trouble was brewing between then Prime Minister Alfred Sant and the party’s historic leader, Dom Mintoff. Shortly afterwards, Sant himself informed Mifsud Bonnici of the situation and said he wanted an early election.

Again, Mifsud Bonnici asked the prime minister to carry out his mandate, but soon Sant lost his patience with Mintoff and, when the Cottonera waterfront project – to which Mintoff had serious objections – came up for approval, Sant declared it a confidence motion. Mintoff voted against, with the opposition, and the resolution was defeated. Sant had no option but to resign and call an early election.

That election, held in September 1998, was won by the Nationalist Party. Significantly, it also saw the election of Ugo’s elder son Carmelo, successfully contesting his father’s seat for the first time.

This result also meant that, so far, Mifsud Bonnici is the only President of Malta to have presided over three different administrations.

Having completed his term, Mifsud Bonnici busied himself with, among other things, drafting a law on civil societies, overseeing the translation of the EU’s voluminous acquis comunautaire into Maltese, and serving on the prestigious Venice Commission, set up by the Council of Europe in 1990 to assist the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe in drawing up their constitutions their constitutions.

He also started writing for the Church newspaper Il-Ġens, published various books, taught comparative law at the International Maritime Law Institute and lectured law students on Maltese laws in their historical context. To this day, he chairs the Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism.

Konvinzjoni u Esperjenza is much more than an autobiography of a life of a brilliant and remarkable man lived to the full; it is, I dare say, an indispensable source of reference for those studying developments in Malta’s politics, education, culture and other areas over the past 50 years.