November – Malta’s triumphs and tragedies

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Grand Master L’Isle Adam’s  is welcomed in Mdina – 1530

The Order of St John settled in Malta on October 26, 1530.  Barely two weeks later the Grand Master L’Isle Adam and his retinue travelled from Birgu to Mdina on carriages and horses to pay homage to the town’s Council (Università).  When the Grand Master’s entourage reached the top of the hill of Rabat, they dismounted near St Augustine’s monastery where the Grand Master could rest for a while and enjoy some refreshments.

l isle adamAt a given time, the doors of Mdina opened and the Capitano della Verga, known also as il-Ħakem (the leader or administrator of the Università) exited the town gates to welcome the Grand Master. The ħakem ceremoniously carried two silver keys on a silk pillow which he presented to the Grand Master as a symbolic gesture that implied that the Council was more than ready to welcome him to their town.  L’Isle Adam graciously accepted the keys. Then, together with the ħakem he walked under a canopy along the narrow streets towards the Cathedral where he was welcomed by the Bishop of Malta. Following the chanting of the Te Deum the Grand Master swore that he would grant the Council a degree of autonomy to administer Mdina, up to that time, considered as the capital of Malta. Thereafter, the Grand Master was entertained to lunch as guest of the Council members (the giurati). As the journey back to Birgu would have proved too tiring, L’Isle Adam slept the night in Palazzo Falzon. Prior to his departure L’Isle Adam was showered with gifts which included cattle and agricultural produce that had been harvested.

Following this cordial diplomatic encounter, L’Isle Adam’s successors likewise paid homage to the Council of Mdina on being elected to their Granmastership. Nevertheless, the authority of the Università, which up to 1530 used to see to all spheres of administration of the whole island of Malta was vastly curtailed, as was the commercial activities in and around Mdina, when people drifted slowly towards to Birgu and later to Valletta the new capital, in search of trade and work.

Malta has its first autonomous Parliament – 1921 

tapestry-room1 copyFollowing the brisk business experienced in Malta during the First World War, the life of the Maltese population was to come to a sudden and miserable economic low. By then, the aspiring Maltese politicians had had enough of the cold shoulder shown by an 18 year old Executive adminstrative Council that had been installed in an undemocratic move by the British. The riots of the Sette Giugno of 1919 was a bloody event that made the British rethink and heed to the national pleas of the Maltese. Following numerous meetings with L.S. Amery, the Under-Secretary of State of the British Colonies, in 1921 Malta was eventually granted a new constitution for the Maltese to elect their own autonomous Parliament.

The constitution provided for a diarchical administration, meaning the Maltese Parliament was to enact laws and handle financial matters that concerned local affairs, whilst the British Governor would administer matters related to foreign affairs and the military defence of the islands as dictated from London.

Now, the previous political factions morphed into several clearly defined political parties each with its own polices. The parties had been elected by a wide franchise (but not a universal one – for instance, women had no vote). The parties were made up of a wide spectrum of politically affiliated members that even include some from the clergy. The parties elected to Parliament were:

The Unione Politica Maltese led by Mons. Ignazio Panzavecchia.

The Partito Democratico Nazionalista, led by Enrico Mizzi  (in 1926 these two merged to form the Partito Nazzionalista).

The Constitutional Party, led by Count Gerald Strickland.

The Labour Party Club headed by Lt. Colonel Sigismondo Savona.

Joseph Howard of the Unione Politica Maltese became Malta’s first Prime Minister.

Prince Edward, officially inaugurated Parliament on November 1, 1921, amidst much rejoicing. There was to be a Senate of 17 members and a Legislative Assembly made of 33 members.

The fledgling government made up as it was of a coalition of various parties was to test new grounds but each party also retained old battles. Health, education, infrastructural projects, employment and emigration, where of paramount importance. But the topic that vexed all elected governments was the Language Question – Italianites versus Anglophiles –  as the two major parties contested whether to defend Italian as a national language or else induce the widespread use of English in education to provide a better opportunities for employment.

Obviously, the autonomous government was not at liberty to carry out any commercial matters with other countries without the approval from London. Nor was it to vote for local projects that would prove to be of detriment or interference with the operations of the British Navy and the military.

Because of this status quo, In the following years, the constitution was suspended several times. It was only after World War II, that a new constitution was introduced to replace the one established in 1921.

The Egyptair Hijack – 1985

At 19.35 hrs of November 23, 1985, minutes after an Egyptair Boeing took off from Athens, three  Palestinian passengers from the Abu Nidal group, took over and hijacked the airplane. There were  85 passengers and six crew on board. The hijackers demanded that they be taken to Libya or Tunisia but these countries refused the plane to land at their airport. Then the hijackers demanded to be flown to Malta instead.  The authorities in Malta refused the landing but with the depletion of fuel and faulty air pressure due to a shoot out on board – an Egyptian security officer had killed one of the hijackers and was wounded in the process – the situation on the plane was precarious. The Maltese authorities even switched off the airport runway but the pilot managed to land at Luqa anyway.  The hijackers demanded that the plane be refuelled in order to fly off to another destination.  The Prime Minister of Malta Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici who took lead of the negotations with the hijackers refused and a stand-off ensued.

File photo of EgyptAir plane seen on the runway at Cairo Airport

The Prime Minster  was under pressure from the American and Egyptian ambassadors to allow their commandos to deal with the situation in order to free the passengers.  After a while two injured flight attendants and eleven passengers were allowed to leave the plane. But then the two hijackers threatened to start killing one passenger every fifteen minutes if their demand was not met with. Indeed five passengers were eventually shot, one after the other, execution style. Two of them died, three survived.

The Maltese authorities consulted both American and Egyptian governments to allow an experienced  commando force for a possible rescue operation to be implemented. The unit chosen was the Egyptian special deployment force, led by their four American trainers.

In the early hours of November 25,without warning to the Maltese authorities, the Egyptian commando unit suddenly set its operation in motion and stormed the plane. The commandos detonated explosive devices both near the passenger door and the luggage compartment. As a reaction to this surprise attack the hijackers lobbed hand grenades inside the plane.  The plane immediately was ablaze and it is believed that many died aphixiated due to the thick smoke from burning material. The carnage that ensued resulted in the death of a total of 56 people.

During this attack one of the hijackers was killed, whilst another – Ali Resaq – was captured and arrested.  He was subsequently put on trial and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment in a Maltese jail. Resaq served only 8 years before being released through a series of State pardons. (It is believed that these pardons were purposely meant to let the prisoner go free as soon as could be, as the Maltese authorities feared retaliation by the same Abu Nidal group – perhaps even a possible hijack of an Airmalta plane). Ali Resaq travelled to Ghana, where he was captured, and then to Nigeria where he was eventually taken in. He  was extradited to the United States where he was sentenced  to life term without the possibility of parole.

Martin Morana

1st November 2020

Book Cover
On a lighter note … you may be interested to know about Maltese humour …. if so please click here ….
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