News | Sunday, 06 December 2009

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My father, the Prime Minister

Peter Borg Olivier remembers his father, George Borg Olivier, Malta’s first Independence prime minister, and shares anecdotes about his private life with DAVID DARMANIN

Family life is unusual when you are being raised by the Prime Minister. In the sixties and seventies, the public took a keen interest in George Borg Olivier’s personal matters, and this inevitably made life for his wife and three children somewhat surreal.
Peter Borg Olivier, 60, the youngest of Borg Olivier’s children, vividly remembers both the happy and the less happy moments of his childhood. With the exception of certain experiences (swimming with the British princes Charles and Anne for example), Borg Olivier says that as a child, he was not given privileged treatment because of his being the Prime Minister’s son. His mother Alexandra Mattei, passed away earlier this year, aged 87 – surviving her husband by 29 years, when Dom Mintoff ordered a state funeral for the man who amid much controversy, acquired independence for Malta in 1964.
“The respect my father left in our family is unbelievable – from both sides of the political sphere, and I find this very gratifying.”
Borg Olivier was 15 when, upon his father’s return from London, news broke that Malta was soon to gain independence. “A few days prior to celebrations, my father had given me money to go to Gialanze in Valletta, where I bought my first suit with long trousers. I was going to meet the Prince. It was a very exciting time for all of us.”
But, with the tortuous run-up to the 1964 referendum, the PN’s proposal to make Malta independent did not enjoy full support. “The move was definitely the way forward for the PN, but since a number of Maltese families depended on the British, opposing parties campaigned for a ‘no’ vote in the referendum. The agenda of the Stricklandians and that of the parties of Pellegrini and Ganado was not necessarily in tune with what the PN was seeing,” he said.
At the time, Peter was a monthly boarder at St Edward’s College. The Progressive Constitutional Party was then led by Mabel Strickland, whose mother was the founder of the school. Strickland, demanding dominion status for Malta, had declared her opposition to the Referendum Bill. “Many of my schoolmates came from pro-British families,” Borg Olivier said. “So personally, I cannot say that I did not have a hard time. Luckily, I enjoyed the protection of close friends and an older brother. The headmaster, Fr Brookes at the time, was always very kind to me and he made sure to protect me in case I was bullied in any way. But he was strict, and I was certainly not given preferential treatment because I was the Prime Minister’s son.”

Family life – the ups and downs
“In general, I got quite the contrary of preferential treatment in my adolescence, seeing that the political environment of those days, especially in the 1970s, was rather heated. It is not the first time that PN supporters, including myself, clashed with violent opposing forces, among whom the police. This was of course after 1971.”
They were heady days, as Borg Olivier describes the atmosphere on King’s Way (Republic Street). “If you walked around holding the Nazzjon,” referring to the PN’s organ (then decapitated to In- Taghna by a Mintoffian decree), “you risked getting beaten up.”
Although he does not remember his family members being the direct target of violent attacks, “when certain sections of the media at the time made nasty and insensitive insinuations about my father’s family life, it hurt a lot, especially since I was in my teens and I hadn’t yet built up my defence mechanisms,” Borg Olivier said.
But family life for the Borg Oliviers was not all peppered with hardship. Peter reminisces about electoral campaigning, in which every member of the family would get involved.
“As a family, we followed him everywhere, at meetings as well as when he met prospective voters. Electoral campaigns at the time were so different to what we see nowadays. It was all very personal, and very much of it relied on door-to-door visits. Nationalists would let us in. Most of the others who voted for opposing parties, used to let us know immediately so we moved on to the next house. There were times when non-PN families would let us in anyway, so we would find ourselves drinking whisky with a Labour voter.
“I remember going around Valletta, both in the nice parts as well as in the not-so-nice parts. My father was welcomed everywhere. Valletta was a political stronghold – and by all means, we have strong links with the parish of St Paul. I was born in Sliema, although the Borg Oliviers are from Valletta, while the Matteis, my mother’s side of the family, are from Mdina. My mother really backed him up. As they say, behind every great man there is a great woman. She used to make some of the house visits herself. She kept a notebook in which she would jot down details of families who were in need, and made sure to pass on their complaints through the proper channels.”

Pushing Charles into the pool
Sometime between 1962 and 1964, Lady Dorman – the wife of then Colonial Governor Maurice Dorman, had invited the Borg Oliviers to San Anton Palace, since she was hosting Prince Charles and Princess Anne. “I remember having a great time in the swimming pool, until for some reason I decided to push Charles into the pool. He started weeping. For a moment I must have forgotten he was a prince; I must have treated him just like any another boy my age. I remember Lady Dorman giving me a polite telling off afterwards.”

Giving his mother the fright of her life
Like most other boarders, Peter spent his Christmas holidays at home with his family. “One evening, while I was at home, my parents were attending a wedding or a Christmas function of sorts,” he recounted.
At the door was a Nationalist supporter from Siġġiewi holding a sack. “This one’s for the Prim,” he told Peter. “When I opened the sack, I found a live turkey. I couldn’t leave it in the sack, so I let it out and locked it in a bathroom we had downstairs. I forgot all about it and carried on with my evening.”
Upon his parents’ return, his mother opened the bathroom door and got the fright of her life as she caught sight of a live turkey running around her restroom. “Needless to say, my father was very angry at me,” he said. “He always told us not to accept anything on his behalf.”

Trying his luck at being chauffer-driven to school
One Monday morning, Peter overslept and missed the bus to college. “My father was abroad, I had an exam that morning and I panicked. My father’s driver was a plain-clothes policeman, so I called him at the depot and explained what my problem was. ‘Wait for me there, I’m coming,’ he promptly said. What I did not take into account was that the driver kept a logbook of his whereabouts, and my trip to school was recorded there for my father to see. He got very angry. ‘Don’t ever do that,’ he had told me. ‘I will not take any criticism in parliament because of your actions.’”

The human side of George Borg Olivier
Borg Olivier was known to be a life-loving socialite. He was a smoker, loved his whisky, enjoyed swimming and was very keen on dogs and horses.
“He was very often surrounded by friends, be it in his sitting room or in the middle of some field having dinner with his supporters. He always surrounded himself by friends, and he made sure to treat everybody well. Among the closest friends I remember there were Alfred Bonnici – who later became Speaker, and Maurice Gruppetta of Merlin Library. This is just to mention a couple, since there were so many. He also very much enjoyed the company of simple people, and was very fond of his two Irish Setters – Honey and Hans. They were famous dogs – and whenever they found their way out of the house and ended up roaming alone in the streets, we wouldn’t be surprised to see them coming back in a police van.”

Dom Mintoff orders a state funeral
In 1980, four years after Borg Olivier had resigned as party leader while retaining his seat in parliament, Peter was with his family by the deathbed of the PN icon – in his last days.
“Dom Mintoff’s brother Fr Dionysius had appeared out of nowhere and along with my uncle, Fr Eddie Borg Olivier, they gave him the last rites,” he said. Borg Olivier had been battling lung cancer for a number of years.
“The day he passed away, Mintoff (who was then PM) had sent for me and my brother and expressed his intentions to organise a state funeral for my father. It is clear that although the two had been fierce political opponents – they respected each other a lot.”
Peter was then 30, and he had moved to Malta to be by his parents’ side at the time his father was dying. “I was studying in the US, but I decided to cut my future in America short so I came back to be near my family. Then I stayed.”
Borg Olivier’s funeral is famous for being the best attended state funeral in Malta.
“At the funeral, we – the family – hardly had time to mourn my father because people took over,” Peter said. “When it came to the burial, there were so many people that I couldn’t pass through to see him being buried. So trying to make my way to the front, I asked the person in front of me to move. ‘That man was my father,’ I said, to be made way. ‘Pass,’ the supporter replied, ‘but he was our father too’.”


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