News | Sunday, 29 March 2009

Should Malta have one national day?

On the eve of another contested celebration of Freedom Day, is our country still so divided that we can't agree on one national day that unites the partisan divide?

Godfrey Baldacchino

Frank Portelli

Reno Calleja

Godfrey Baldacchino
It is said that voters elect the governments they deserve. Perhaps we can say the same about national days. Do we deserve any better – any more, or any less – than our current world record of five national days?
Wikipedia tells us that ‘The National Day’ is a designated date on which celebrations mark the nationhood of a nation or non-sovereign country. The article ‘the’ implies that only one national day per country is expected. But there are exceptions. The Maltese would no doubt take some comfort in the knowledge that, apart from Malta’s hefty clutch, there are at least eight other countries with more than one national day. Argentina celebrates May 25 (Revolution Day) and July 9 (Independence Day). In Pakistan, March 23 is National Day, with Independence Day observed on August 14. Lithuania celebrates two Independence Days: from Russia and Germany on February 16; and from the Soviet Union on March 11. Georgia and Estonia do similarly. Slovenia has both an Independence and Statehood Day. At least two countries have three national days. India celebrates January 26 (Republic Day); August 15 (Independence Day) and October 2 (Mahatma Gandhi’s Birthday). While Hungary celebrates March 15 (outbreak of the 1848 revolution); August 20 (the first founding of the state by King St. Stephen); and October 23 (outbreak of the 1956 revolution and the Proclamation of the Republic in 1989).
Sadly, and ironically, Maltese political history post independence has cast ominous clouds on our claim to nationhood. The onset of responsible government and eventual statehood in 1964 ushered in an identity crisis that involved subjecting national symbols – not just the National Day, but also the National Coat of Arms, which we have changed thrice in 45 years – to (often short-sighted and fickle) partisan manipulation and discretion (this was also a time when it was also seriously suggested that we change some of the words of our National Anthem).
In spite of our significant corpus of cultural communality – predicated by geography, islandness, language, religion, history – and richly expressed in folk and high culture – it remains quite possible to argue that we remain a ‘nationless state’, lacking consensual symbols and common interpretations of (especially recent) history. While debating and disagreeing about who we are is typical, even healthy, for a community, some eventual agreement on the basics would be indicative of political maturity. We have allowed long standing piques, and specifically the legacy of Dom Mintoff’s dour assessment of the conditions secured by George Borg Olivier from Great Britain for the achievement of Malta’s political sovereignty, to continue to fuel partisan rivalry for far too long. Is it time to say ‘enough’?
Independence Day is typically chosen as ‘The National Day’ by all those countries that have had a colonial past: a status which does not leave many countries out (those countries that have more than one national day still include this, as documented above). Moreover, a look at the four other Festi Nazzjonali in Malta suggests a journey towards statehood and nationhood, whose key episode was nevertheless the granting of sovereignty in 1964. The Maltese Islands are just 316km2 of dry and barren rock: that they today support not just a vibrant population but a sovereign country, simply boggles the mind. 8 September (Great Siege of 1565 or the Surrender of Italy in 1943) spared us from incorporation into a larger (Ottoman or Fascist) empire. 7 June 1919 (and 2 September 1798 even more so) witnessed the rebellion of an angry and frustrated citizenry, seeking justice, respect but also the dignity that comes with greater self-government. Neither Malta’s status as a Republic (13 December 1974) nor the winding up of its millennial legacy as a fortress economy (31 March 1979) would have been possible without Malta first becoming an independent state, capable of taking such momentous decisions.
Thus, four of the five contenders for National Day are key signposts on this journey-in-the-making. It is 21 September 1964 which is the pivotal, defining and determining event, granting us the powers and tools of jurisdiction to choose our destiny as a country and as a people, legitimately partaking in the commonwealth of sovereign states.
Now: whether Freedom Day, il-Vitorja, is-Sette Giugno or Republic Day should remain public holidays is a totally different matter: this is more likely something for the social partners to thrash out. But: whether Independence as secured was a lousy deal or not, and the fact that it happened on Borg Olivier’s watch are, frankly, both immaterial in relation to that Day’s towering, national significance.

Professor Godfrey Baldacchino is Canada Research Chair (Island Studies) at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada, and Visiting Professor of Sociology at the University of Malta. E-mail:

Frank Portelli
Malta and the Maltese are unique (everybody knows that); but to prove it we are the only country in the world which has five national holidays.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is reported to have written to the leader of the Opposition proposing that we have one national day – although the other four days will still remain a public holiday. I think it certainly makes sense to have just one national day instead of the present quintet – and this can be easily done through a legal notice according to the governing law: the National Holidays and other Public Holidays Act of 1975, ideally with a consensus agreement with the Opposition.
The famous five holidays are:
(1) June 7, 1919: popularly known as Sette Giugno. There were riots against the British, with four Maltese being killed by British fire.
(2) March 31, 1979: Freedom Day (Jum il Helsien), celebrates the day the British forces left the island with closure of all military bases in Malta.
(3) September 8, 1565: Victory Day (Jum il-Vitorja) and Feast of Our Lady of Victories, when the Siege of Malta was lifted by the Turks. Italy too surrendered on 8 September 1943 which meant the skies were controlled by the Allies and no further aerial bombardment on Malta could be made.
(4) September 21, 1964 – known as Independence Day (Indipendenza) – when Gorg Borg Olivier negotiated independence from Britain in 1964.
(5) December 13, 1974 – Republic Day, when Malta became a Republic and remained within the Commonwealth.
On a separate note, the Mnarja on June 29, which is the feast of St Peter and St Paul, would also have been a good contestant for the post. Unfortunately it has now acquired political significance of a different nature to the two main political parties.
Whilst all these days have varying degrees of political significance there is only one day which to my mind unites the Maltese people.
A national day should unite the whole people and the celebrations would attract every Maltese whichever political thought they harbour. To my mind therefore the winner is the 8th September.
Since 1565, the eighth day of September has had a special significance for the Maltese. It marks the raising of the Great Siege and Malta’s historic victory as a landmark in the deference and safeguard of Malta’s Christian heritage. Every schoolboy and schoolgirl will tell you that. Indeed until 1964 the 8th September was Malta’s national day and I believe it should be reinstated.
I believe we should go for the 8th September – so we can all celebrate it together – it could heal a few wounds, on both sides.

Frank Portelli is a former Nationalist MP and a Nationalist MEP candidate

Reno Calleja
Late in 1957, Dom Mintoff led a Labour government delegation in London. Facing Mintoff and leading the British delegation was the British Secretary of State for the Colonies Alan Lennox Boyd. He was more than six feet tall and very intimidating. Mintoff dropped a bombshell which seemed to shock Lennox Boyd right through his spine. He bluntly told him that if the British did not want to treat the Maltese as equals, he, on behalf of the Maltese people, was demanding complete and total independence from Britain. Characteristically but intentionally, Mintoff provoked the British delegation in a cold but masterly calculated move. He touched the British nerve by telling Lennox Boyd that after Independence he could not guarantee the British would keep their military base. As Guze Cassar recounted to me, Lennox Boyd was furious. The people around the two delegations had to separate the two leaders, because they almost came to blows. Fuming with anger, Lennox Boyd told Mintoff: “You are a pocket dictator”, obviously trying to insult Mintoff for being short and for his total dominance of the Labour Party. To which Mintoff retorted: “And you are a six-foot bastard”. That required guts. Britain had imprisoned almost every leader of the African and Asian countries who led the freedom movements during the 1950s. This incident in my view encapsulates the Malta Labour Party’s passionate position on Freedom Day. In September l964, two years before the approaching general elections, the British were in a hurry to give Malta its independence. The British were eager to give independence to Gorg Borg Olivier because they wanted to sign a defence treaty to guarantee that everything would remain unchanged. They were terrified of Mintoff who had declared he would close the British military base and declare Malta neutral and non-aligned. While in l964, Malta acquired the legal status of an independent country, a very important step in Malta’s rough and bumpy constitutional road, on the other hand Malta’s heart and lungs were still in the hands of the British and NATO. Telecommunications, the airport, the banks, air travel, sea travel, petrol and gas, our ports: everything remained under Britain’s control. In 1967 Borg Olivier asked for NATO membership. His request was treated with contempt and disdain. Malta was only fit to be their errand boy. Before the 1971 general elections which Labour won, the US and British ambassadors met several times to discuss how to help the Nationalist Party win the forthcoming elections. They had every reason to be apprehensive. Mintoff had made it clear that if elected, NATO’s days in Malta were numbered. Real and concrete freedom was won by Malta on the 31 March 1979, after years of hard work and sacrifices by the Maltese Labour movement. This movement, embarked upon with almost holy zeal, was on a mission to give Malta its political and economic independence. It was also determined to give the Maltese freedom of thought. On the political front it fought against the British and NATO. On the local front it was embattled with the Church and some conservative forces, trapped in the Middle Ages that suffocated any liberal and progressive ideas. Witness the six principles the Labour government entrenched in the Maltese Republican Constitution of 1974. Those were progressive, liberal, secularist and visionary ideas. This bumpy, hard and hilly road, so brilliantly captured by the artist Anton Agius in his Freedom Monument at Vittoriosa, had its casualties. The successive Labour governments of 1971 and 1976 worked tirelessly on a strategy to wrest Malta’s total economic dependence from the West by dealing with Libya, China, Eastern Europe, North Korea and whoever wanted to help Malta diversify. Politically Malta became fiercely independent, working day and night for peace in the Middle East, because it staunchly believed that without peace in the Mediterranean Europe would suffer. Minutes after Mintoff was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1971, he kicked out Admiral Birindelli, the NATO chief who left Malta with his tail between his legs, without even having the time to pack his things. He informed Governor Sir Maurice Dorman to count his days because he was appointing a Maltese as Governor General. He renegotiated the British defence agreement forcing Britain and NATO to pay Malta Lm14 million (a very large sum of money for that time), telling Lord Carrington, “it would allow us to change Malta in a way to enable us to live without you.” Should we have one national day? I have attempted to convince your readers that September 1964 and March 1979 are both important and historic days for Malta. Should we then have one national day? Of course not. The Nationalist Party and the Labour Party should find a compromise and agree to give both dates the same importance. Despite trying to depict him as infantile and inexperienced, the new Labour leader Joseph Muscat has declared that this is the road both parties should embark on. It is insulting and hurtful of the Nationalist government to try to bury the 31 March. It will not be.

Reno Calleja is a former Labour MP

Any comments?
If you wish your comments to be published in our Letters pages please click button below.
Please write a contact number and a postal address where you may be contacted.



Copyright © MediaToday Co. Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann SGN 9016, Malta, Europe
Managing editor Saviour Balzan | Tel. ++356 21382741 | Fax: ++356 21385075 | Email