Obituary: Dom Mintoff, former Malta Prime Minister

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Image caption, Dom Mintoff became the youngest prime minister in the Commonwealth

Dom Mintoff dominated the politics of the small, but strategically important, Mediterranean island of Malta for more than two decades from the 1960s, twice being prime minister.

Born Dominic Mintoff in 1916, he was the son of a Maltese chief cook in the Royal Navy. He studied engineering and architecture at the University of Malta before going on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University.

He remained in England during part of World War II as a civilian garrison engineer employed by the War Office. On his return to Malta, he joined the Labour Party, became its leader in 1949 and led it to victory in 1955, when at 38 he became the youngest prime minister in the Commonwealth.

He advocated a programme of integration with the United Kingdom and his proposals were supported by a round-table conference of British and Maltese representatives and by a referendum. But the negotiations foundered and Mintoff resigned in 1958.

For most of the 1960s, he was leader of the opposition and it was during this period that Malta was granted a new constitution and then its independence from Britain.

Hard bargain

The Labour Party regained power in 1971 and Mr Mintoff became prime minister again with a parliamentary majority of only one seat, but he did not allow this to cramp his style.

Image source, AFP
Image caption, Mintoff exploited Malta's strategic importance to Britain

Within a few days of taking office, he had dismissed the governor-general, and expelled from Malta the commander-in-chief of the Nato naval forces in Southern Europe.

He went on to demand a drastic revision of Malta's defence agreement with Britain, which provided for Malta to receive £5m a year in loans and grants, in return for the stationing of British forces on the island, and use of the dockyards.

Mintoff declared that Britain would have to pay a much larger rent for military facilities. The British government reacted coolly and after fruitless negotiations - in which Nato as well as British representatives had taken part - Mr Mintoff called for the withdrawal of all British forces from the island.

Orders were given for a phased withdrawal, and the movement was almost complete when, towards the end of March 1972, Mintoff finally reached an accord.

The new seven-year defence agreement was greatly to his advantage; under it, Malta got £14m a year from Nato, of which £5m was provided by Britain, with additional money for development and economic projects.

Malta became a republic within the Commonwealth at the end of 1974. A general election in September 1976 confirmed Mr Mintoff in office for another five years, with an unchanged parliamentary majority of three seats.

The election brought a considerable increase in political violence. During and after the campaign, many clubs run by the main opposition party, Borg Olivier's Nationalists, were attacked and wrecked by faceless men who seemed to be above the law.

Church power curbed

Mintoff was a skilful and confident administrator and a tough negotiator; short in physical stature and fond of pipe-smoking and horse-riding, but with an enormous capacity for hard work.

He was married to an Englishwoman and their two daughters were educated in England. In the early 1970s his government improved conditions for Maltese workers: he increased pensions, held inflation in check and brought in measures on housing and other social problems.

Later Mintoff reduced the voting age to 18 and tried to curb the Catholic Church as a political force. Gradually, he moved closer to full state control, and political opponents accused him of assuming dictatorial powers.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption, Mintoff continued to be an influential figure long after he left office

In 1977, Malta saw many strikes about union rights and practices. Civil servants came out in protest over a cut in public holidays and there was a bitter clash with the doctors when Mintoff insisted that medical graduates should register for work in government hospitals.

Twice he travelled to Britain to try to persuade industrialists to invest more capital in the island before the defence agreement ended in 1979. In foreign affairs, he accepted aid from Arab countries and China.

Libya gave him cheap petrol, and the Arab links gradually got stronger. In 1978, Mintoff said Malta considered itself part of the Arab world.

His foreign policy continued to be erratic, playing off the East against the West. He made many visits abroad, but in 1979 a rift developed with Libyan leader Col Gaddafi over the demarcation of the sea-bed for oil exploration.

However, when a general election was held at the end of 1981 Mintoff was returned to power. His last years in office saw arguments with the Church, particularly over its role in Malta's education system.

He stepped down as prime minister in 1984, but remained an influential backbench MP. His legacy is still apparent in the nationalist outlook of Malta's Labour Party.

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