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NEWS | Wednesday, 23 September 2009

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Malta: a babe in arms

Malta is 45 years old. Overburdened as we are by a millennial history, that brief statement of our life as a sovereign state may seem unreal, hard to match with the glory and misery of the past which has flowed over this territory. Those of us irritated by the debate over which should be our National Day could do worse than ponder the fact.
We may all too easily take as our rightful birthright every known fact established and every ornate legend spun since early man made landfall here but we also have to acknowledge that we are still a babe in arms as far as statehood goes.
The troubled quest for our identity underlying the debate about symbols should not disturb us too deeply. Seen against the background of our past, the fact that we remain less than sure about it all, should come as no surprise and certainly no shame.
Working our way backward through the years, our first stop is on 31 March 1979, the ceremony marking the departure of the last of the British armed forces stationed in Malta. All alone at last after centuries of belonging and being defended by the greatest power in the Mediterranean, some of us may have felt somewhat exposed. Ironically even as the matter of the defence of this territory was called into issue by the facts, the debate ended, if it had ever begun.
After centuries of earning our living through piracy and war we became the earth’s most peaceful nation, internal strife excepted. Should this be the moment our National Day recalls, the termination of a lease?
The 1974 parliamentary coup which transformed Malta from monarchy to republic was another first. Should this be on the candidates list for National Day? It remains memorable for the way it was done more than for its effect. Had anybody started a debate or called a referendum on whether Malta should shed it last remaining shreds of Monarchy a majority would have been found. The PN Opposition would have been outmanoeuvred, too embarrassed to defend a British Queen. Blessed by consensus, the transition may have eluded notice. Instead the new republican constitution, (little more than an amended version of the earlier one) was forced upon the country under threat by the government to seize absolute power on the pretext that Article 6 of the constitution which mere said that the constitution was supreme was not itself entrenched requiring a two thirds majority for its amendment.
The constitutional amendments including the stopping of this loophole were agreed to by the opposition under apparent duress. No revolution took place on December 13th. There was no break in legal continuity and the Government was allowed its two thirds majority. Instead of consensus granting ownership of the change to all parties, we had coercion and we still have resentment.
Beyond that change lies independence. Without question September 21st 1964 is our birth date. That is what allowed us to join the United Nations as a sovereign state. Despite the criticism, the mockery of the quality of the independence achieved, it would not have been granted without the acquiescence of the Labour opposition. Prime Minister George Borg Olivier in coat tails and sash waving the vital document aloft remains the epitome of that moment: in a Maltese, dualist context, it remains a PN moment.
Labour never allowed that it was the real McCoy. We still needed the money from Britain to survive and Brisish Forces were still present here. The assault on its validity gave offence to Nationalists and its inflation and appropriation by the PN kept it alien to Labourites. Should we kiss and make up and decide this is it?
Before independence the historical event which was the frontrunner as a National Day was the 8th of September, Victory Day. Commemorating the birth of the Blessed Virgin in the Catholic Calendar, it rose to prominence in Malta as the day of deliverance when the Great Siege was raised in 1565.
At that great distance in time, it may act as a more effective unifier of the Maltese than the more recent notable events still subject to controversy and smouldering resentment. However, in this day and age it would not do to be celebrating a victory against the might of the Ottoman Empire, one of the final flare-ups in the war between Islam and Christianity. If and when Turkey joins the EU the celebration of our National Day may become an annual diplomatic embarrassment. Since the 8th of September also marks the surrender of the Italian Fleet ‘under the guns of the fortress of Malta” in 1944, it could be a double embarrassment.
Twenty-five years earlier, arrival of the knights of St John was the accident of history which set Malta off in the direction independence. That was the cut off from all previous history when Malta was an appendix of Sicily. Wherever Sicily went, Malta followed. In 1530, the new resident leaseholders unwittingly caused a break in our history. Their centuries of tenure brought them to assume sovereignty despite their nominal allegiance to Spain and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. What the Maltese thought of themselves and how they were regarded by others was changed irreversibly. It could not qualify as a National Day nonetheless.
It was to some degree a betrayal. In 1428 the Charta Magna Libertatis arrived in Malta sealing the renewed bond between the Maltese and Gozitans with their Aragonese sovereign and ending a rebellion that had started in the previous year. Our ancestors had defied the Aragonese empire and shrugged off the threat of extermination negotiating terms for their return to order. The issue was freedom from excessive exaction, the promise never again to be granted in fief for the purpose, exemption from taxes on grain in Aragonese ports. In guarantee of these gains they were granted the right to take up arms against their overlords in full immunity. The Chart Magna Libertatis is probably the first mention of the Maltese and the Gozitans as such. It is the foundation of our social contract, the idea that public authority is founded on popular tolerance. It would make a great National Day commemoration. Unfortunately its memory has been suppressed by every holder of authority since. In five years of reading law at university I never heard it mentioned although it must be the bedrock of our constitutional history.
Unlike the English Magna Charta ours grants rights to all Maltese and all Gozitans and their descendants in perpetuity, not merely to the aristocracy. The Magna Charta is world famous, ours is forgotten even by us, if not by all of us.
The Declaration of the Rights of the Maltese by the Consilglio Popolare in 1802 has suffered a similar fate. The original document has disappeared, its memory largely suppressed. It too makes great reading. Perhaps we should revisit it before plonking of Independence Day as our National Day. History will continue to unfold. There’s no need for us to rush into things.



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