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Interview • March 28 2004

Freedom Day blues

As the country grapples with an epidemic of collective amnesia and historical revisionism, the Malta Labour Party insists on celebrating the 25 anniversary of Freedom Day in style. MLP Secretary General Jason Micallef faces the flak

What’s the point of celebrating Freedom Day?
It is one of our five national holidays, and the word ‘national’ should mean that the people are united to celebrate what we gained, with much sacrifice, as a nation. In fact in 1979 the Maltese, under a Labour government, gained freedom, there was the closure of the British military base and so it is important to remember it as we do all the four other national holidays, without any distinction. That’s why we felt so offended and had every reason to protest against the undignified way the Nationalist government was celebrating the 25 anniversary of Freedom Day.

What you call ‘freedom’ was actually an expired military agreement with the British for which Dom Mintoff was asking an astronomical figure to renew, with the British actually opting out. No sacrifice, as you put it, was involved.
I don’t think you’re right. Since 1971 a lot of sacrifices were made. Mintoff had a vision for Malta. Apart from Malta becoming a Republic in 1974, even when the British soldiers were still here between 1974 and 1979 the British government was paying Lm14 million to the Maltese government. It was more than an achievement. Partisan politics aside, everyone agrees that the gains we made after the closure of the British bases, and the money Mintoff managed to get from the British government as part of the agreement, were essential to start building industrial estates, factories, social housing for the first time. Everyone also remembers the children’s allowance and all the social benefits that the Labour government had introduced at the time. I’m sure the agreement with the British government had a lot to do with all this.

Yet you refer to Freedom Day as a landmark date reflecting the government’s policy of peace and neutrality when, frankly, it was just about a financial agreement followed by military alliances with North Korea and Libya. That’s far from the neutrality Labour claims the country had adopted.
Historically the Labour Party, even in Mintoff’s time, believed in peace and everyone should acknowledge Mintoff’s famous speech at the Helsinki summit in that regard. Mintoff always believed Malta should be a bridge between North Africa and Europe. The PN at that time had a very negative, disparaging view of Arab states, obviously in view of Mintoff’s friendship with several Arab heads of state, particularly with Colonel Gadhafi.

Mintoff was aligning Malta with so-called rogue states, how can you call that neutrality?
Yes, because while the Labour government made sure it got the best deals for the Maltese people, for example by getting a special price for oil from Arab countries, Mintoff also used to appeal to those states to adopt a policy of peace and non-alignment. Nowadays things have changed a lot, with Tony Blair visiting Libya and what have you. I think the MLP helped a lot in changing the mentality of certain countries towards peace and progress, despite the damaging and destructive criticism we used to get from the PN, such as the infamous Malta files they distributed in the UK about Mintoff’s friendship with Colonel Gadhafi.

Many believe that Mintoff could not come to terms with the fact that the PN gained Malta’s Independence, that he wanted his own historical date to be remembered for – that is Freedom Day.
As Secretary General of the MLP I acknowledge all five national holidays, not least Independence day, I have no problems saying that.

But do you want to celebrate Freedom Day merely because it is technically a national holiday or because you really believe it is a historical landmark?
Let me put it this way, a 25 anniversary is something we should be celebrating. Former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami always relegated Freedom Day to Army Day. Even this year, the army parade does not make any sense when we’re supposed to be celebrating the closure of a military base. We’re insisting on having decent national celebrations precisely because it’s the 25 anniversary. Having said that, we’re definitely not calling for an exorbitant expenditure on celebrations, in the light of the country’s dismal financial situation, absolutely not.

And do you agree we should have five national holidays?
Personally I disagree but this is something that should be decided at the country’s highest institution. I think it is about time the two parties agree on one national day.

And which day would that be?
It wouldn’t be wise to give my personal opinion now that I’m representing the MLP, it’s a decision that should be taken by the party and I might end up respecting a decision I disagree with.

Are we anywhere near or is this just your wish?
It’s my wish; I really wish we stopped once and for all talking about the Independence achieved by the Nationalists and Freedom achieved by the Labourites. Even in terms of identity, it’s stupid.
Lawrence Gonzi as new prime minister had a very important test, which he unfortunately failed. Of course we remain two different parties with different ideals, but we gave a clear signal of our willingness to reach national reconciliation when Dr Sant invited him to visit our headquarters, and we were extremely pleased he accepted, as I had accepted to attend the PN General Council for the first time as MLP Secretary General. But our gesture was not reciprocated – the government just wants to humiliate the Labour Party. The government is humiliating the commemoration of Freedom Day, and it is also discarding the whole idea of national reconciliation when it comes to appointing the new president.

Freedom Day means nothing for the majority of the population, it has no popular appeal, people are not celebrating it.
This is a very important question. It is very important that we do not forget our historical achievements, our country’s leaders, whoever they were. But we can’t stop there. On 1 May Malta becomes an EU member, we have to look forward. We have to give a sense of hope to today’s electorate, not to the electorate of the seventies. As a party, we’re as proud of our history as much as we are of our veterans, but we have to look forward.

You’re celebrating Freedom Day because of the ageing, diehard grassroots of the party, aren’t you?
No, not really. We respect the grassroots immensely and we need them. It’s important for 60 or 70-year-olds to remember the events they were involved in. But at the same time there are teenagers, Junior College and University students, who do not remember 1979, and they are totally alien to the historical achievements made by successive governments. We have to give them a sense of direction.

When Labour won the 1996 election, the first thing Alfred Sant did was to get Malta out of the Partnership for Peace. As you look forward, can you tell us whether a future Labour government will stop Malta’s participation in the European Union’s Rapid Reaction Force?
It’s a decision which the party will have to take in the future. The Labour party is not just Jason Micallef, there are several channels of debate, not least the Parliamentary Group and the General Conference which still have to discuss the question you’re putting some time in the future. Labour is accepting the new realities in the context of 1 May. The people have decided almost a year ago and it’s time to look forward. The European Parliament is a reality. In next June’s elections people won’t be voting for or against the European Union, but to elect candidates from the MLP, Alternattiva Demokratika or the PN. We’re convinced that our team has the best candidates that can represent all the people of Malta and Gozo.

Another reality we’re facing today, which was not decided by a referendum, is that of NATO military vessels entering Grand Harbour almost everyday. The MLP seems to have stopped complaining about them. Are you having second thoughts on neutrality?
Absolutely not. We make statements every now and then about the foreign military vessels that are literally taking over the space for tourists’ cruise-liners which are badly needed for our country. We have to be fair on this one: the Labour Party is always invited for receptions on board these vessels and we always refuse to attend. That’s a clear gesture of protest from the Labour Party.

Do you think this is a sustainable policy in the context of international conflicts demanding Europe’s intervention?
The Labour Party is always against military might. Look at Iraq. Who won and who lost? I can’t understand how the US invasion of Iraq with the total backing of some European countries could be called a victory …

Including the backing of the British Labour government ...?
Yes, yes, of course … but I also have to say that the Spanish Socialist Party made an electoral pledge and it’s being implemented; it’s withdrawing Spanish troops from Iraq. Spain is a full EU member and it’s taking this position, and the Malta Labour Party will definitely follow this policy direction.

The Balkans remains an unsolved question demanding EU intervention. How can you argue against the EU’s intervention in the region?
Even there too much blood has been shed and military force has solved nothing. We will always remain steadfastly against war and aggression.

And what about peace-
The MLP appeals for peace and progress everywhere. Now we’ll be joining our European counterparts in the European Parliament and our direction will be in accordance with that of European Socialist



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