Ac­count­ing for 30+ years in pub­lic life

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - BOOKS -

Au­thor: Ugo Mif­sud Bon­nici Pub­lisher Klabb Kotba Maltin / 2015 Ex­tent: 1223 pp

Noel Grima This is, one might say, Ugo Mif­sud Bon­nici’s po­lit­i­cal au­to­bi­og­ra­phy from his be­gin­nings as the son of Il-Gross to his first po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ences in the 1960s, to the years in Op­po­si­tion, then for seven years as a min­is­ter and lastly as the Pres­i­dent of the Repub­lic.

There have been other for­mer politi­cians who have pub­lished ac­counts and ex­pe­ri­ences from their past in pol­i­tics, but these tend to be anec­do­tal (Lino Spi­teri, Michael Falzon, To­nio Borg), or cloaked in myths.

This, on the con­trary, is a very full ac­count, hence the length of the book. It skirts per­sonal events and fo­cuses mainly on his pub­lic life.

Some as­pects of his per­sonal life, how­ever, could not be left out. The son of Il-Gross, he speaks with emo­tion on his mother and on his fa­ther, even though it is only to­wards the end of the book that he speaks of the hard­ship his mother en­dured when his fa­ther fell ill and she had to cope with him, her banka tal-lottu and her chil­dren still of school age.

He speaks about the pre-war Cospicua and keeps her feasts es­pe­cially the Kun­ciz­zjoni till this very day.

Cospicua was il-Gross’s Na­tion­al­ist fortress and Ugo, en­ter- ing life as a lawyer first and a politi­cian later (1966) counted many Labour sup­port­ers (or rather Mintof­f­jani) among his friends and clients. In this he was, and still is, a role model for PN can­di­dates, al­ways seek­ing to speak and re­late to the Labour side rather than adopt a con­fronta­tional ap­proach.

Later on, as he be­came MP and moved up­wards in the PN hi­er­ar­chy, he did have his clashes with Labour, es­pe­cially in one pre-elec­tion pe­riod when he went to Il-Macina to solve an is­sue but peo­ple mis­un­der­stood the rea­son for his pres­ence and were about to lynch him, from which he was saved by (then Party sec­re­tary gen­eral) MarieLouise Coleiro who grabbed him by his throat and so saved him.

There is an­other as­pect in which Ugo can serve as a role model for a Party when in Op­po­si­tion. His main in­ter­est be­ing ed­u­ca­tion, he gath­ered around him peo­ple from the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor and held reg­u­lar meet­ings with them, through them get­ting to know what was hap­pen­ing in the schools.

Yet, while be­ing at the top level within the Party, and one time also con­test­ing for the lead­er­ship, he was nowhere at the fore­front of the schools bat­tle in the 1980s when the church schools were closed and stu­dents used to move from house to house dogged by po­lice­men all the time.

When PN won the May 1987 elec­tion, Ugo was made Min­is­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion. This was his area while in Op­po­si­tion and, as al­ready said, he had pre­pared the ground well.

As min­is­ter he led the enor­mous turn­around of the ed­u­ca­tional sec­tor which had come though, bat­tered and maimed, from the Labour years. Ugo bat­tled to re­store seren­ity and or­der to the schools, be­gin­ning with his or­der, the day af­ter he took oath of of­fice, that the doors of the schools be closed to non­mem­bers of staff un­less with per­mis­sion.

Area se­condary schools were im­proved and the trade schools stopped be­ing the re­cep­ta­cles of pupils who did not want to study. Ara­bic was re­moved from be­ing an oblig­a­tory sub­ject.

An even more im­por­tant reform re­garded the univer­sity through the col­lab­o­ra­tion of Peter Ser­ra­cino In­glott. The nu­merus clausus was abol­ished, as were other re­stric­tions; the univer­sity wel­comed back the Fac­ulty of Arts and of The­ol­ogy and as a re­sult, the univer­sity pop­u­la­tion soared.

An­other reform fo­cused on the Ju­nior Col­lege with the in­tro­duc­tion, due to Ugo’s in­sis­tence, on Sys­tems of Knowl­edge.

An­other area where he put in an im­por­tant con­tri­bu­tion re­garded the re­stored re­la­tion­ship with the Vat­i­can. He tells of nu­mer­ous meet­ings with Nun­cio Pier Luigi Ce­lata, a metic­u­lous diplo­mat, who was banned from Malta by Mintoff. (Some­how, Ce­lata was never made a car­di­nal, while his as­sis­tant, Be­ni­amino Stella, is now a very im­por­tant car­di­nal).

As a re­sult of so many meet­ings, agree­ment was reached not just on the re­turn of the Fac­ulty of The­ol­ogy but also on the church prop­erty be­ing passed on to the State.

Ugo was cer­tainly a de­ci­sive fac­tor in the reform of the ed­u­ca­tional sys­tem in Malta and you get the im­pres­sion the min­is­ter used to mi­cro-man­age his min­istry. But 30 years later, one might per­haps ask if the re­forms which were car­ried out were enough, con­sid­er­ing for in­stance the amount of il­lit­er­acy and early school-leavers we still have to­day.

Cer­tainly, how­ever, con­sid­er­ing the min­is­ters who suc­ceeded him, he was head and shoul­ders above them all.

An­other area of his min­istry which clearly in­ter­ested him very much re­lated to her­itage. He was a prime mover of set­ting up the Mar­itime Mu­seum on the Vit­to­riosa seafront and used to pop in al­most ev­ery day to see the progress of its restora­tion.

One other area of his min­is­te­rial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties was the en­vi­ron­ment. He found a dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion in that he was faced by the hunters and the trap­pers on one side and the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists on the other who many times were so purist they were not ready to con­sider com­pro­mises. The sec­tor re­mains toxic to this very day.

Af­ter the 1992 elec­tion, he was con­firmed as Min­is­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion but had the Min­istry for Jus­tice added on. One gets the im­pres­sion he was not at ease in this min­istry (his fa­ther had been Min­is­ter for Jus­tice be­fore him) and in fact he did not last long in this re­spon­si­bil­ity. One must not for­get, in this re­gard, his cru­cial role in re­triev­ing Car­avag­gio’s St Jerome from the hands of the thieves who had stolen it in the first days of the 1987 gov­ern­ment.

Ugo makes two facts very clear: that he had no role in the choice of his brother, Giuseppe, as Chief Jus­tice (no doubt still smart­ing over the “All in the fam­ily” jibe by the Coun­cil of Europe and that he had no role in the de­ci­sion he was to be­come Pres­i­dent, taken much against his wishes by Ed­die Fenech Adami.

Lit­tle did he know, when he be­came Pres­i­dent, he was to see his own Party lose the 1996 elec­tion, Labour com­ing to power and los­ing it less than two years later and that he kept his cool in those tur­bu­lent days.

As such, how­ever, he does not give the im­pres­sion he had much to do. In fact, he rather finds things for him­self to do such as car­ing for the works of art in the palaces. He had none of the cur­rent ac­tivism for the Com­mu­nity Chest Fund (ac­tu­ally it was his wife who more than him played a prin­ci­pal role). As said, he re­served his en­er­gies for do­ing what a Pres­i­dent is there for – to keep the coun­try united, through di­a­logues with gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion.

Ob­vi­ously, there is much more in a book this long. Writ­ten in care­ful prose from a man used to writ­ing for news­pa­pers, and with only rare neg­a­tive sen­tences with re­gards to very few peo­ple, and with a cer­tain amount of hum­ble ac­cep­tance where he was mis­taken, one can only learn from it.

As I said, none of his con­tem­po­raries have come this close to giv­ing an ac­count of their pub­lic roles.

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