Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, whose premiership was marked by the harrowing 1980s, dies at 89

Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, Prime Minister of Malta from 1984 to 1987, has died. He was 89 years old.

He presided over one of the most turbulent periods in Malta’s history, taking the reins of a divided country from Dom Mintoff and carrying out controversial education reforms that culminated in the infamous protests and boycotts of Church schools.

The radicalization of PN supporters at the time and the association of criminal elements with some Labor ministers led to clashes with law enforcement agencies loyal to the state, as well as violence inflicted on supporters of the PN by Labor supporters. Mifsud Bonnici could not quell the violence.

Labor by choice

Son of Lorenzo Mifsud Bonnici and Catherine Buttigieg, Karmenu was born into a family strongly rooted in the Nationalist Party – his brother Antoine was a nationalist deputy then parliamentary secretary; his cousin was Ugo Mifsud Bonnici, son of the great PN Carmelo ‘il-Gross’ Mifsud Bonnici, later to become Minister and President of Malta.

Never married, he practiced law into old age until his health permitted.

He studied at the Lyceum and obtained his law degree at the University of Malta in 1954, then taught industrial and tax law at the University of Malta.

In the 1960s, at the height of the conflict between the Maltese Church and the Labor Party, he was responsible for a number of secular organizations linked to the Church, including the Catholic Social Guild and the Young Christian Workers Movement , and supported the “diocesan junta” of church organizations opposed to Dom Mintoff and Labour.

He would later claim to be “nationalist by birth, but a laborist by free choice and by conviction”.

After the GWU, under Changes wing

On May 29, 1980, Mintoff proposed Mifsud Bonnici to be appointed deputy leader of the Labor Party responsible for Party affairs, a proposal unanimously approved by the General Conference of the Labor Party. He was responsible for the Labor Party’s election campaign in the 1981 general election which the Labor Party won for the third consecutive time.

But the election result, where Labor won a majority of seats rather than a majority of votes, proved awkward for Mintoff: the PN boycotted the House of Representatives, and Mintoff lamented the constitutional anomaly of the election, making its own attempt at reconciliation and then entering into negotiations to amend the constitutional electoral law.

Mintoff’s plans to leave the leadership of the country and the party hinged on the introduction of GWU Catholic lawyer Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici into the halls of power.

In 1982 Mintoff, hoping once again to stifle the leadership ambitions of other ministers allied with notorious party elements like Lorry Sant and Wistin Abela, appointed Mifsud Bonnici as the designated leader of the MLP.

Mifsud Bonnici was co-opted into Parliament after the resignation of Labor MP Paul Xuereb and appointed Minister of Labor and Social Services. In 1983 he was appointed First Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education.

But his ruthless reforms to make denominational schools belonging to church orders free for all were met with opposition from the Catholic Church, with parents queuing when schools closed. The impasse was resolved through negotiations over public funding for schools.

Mifsud Bonnici was sworn in as Prime Minister on December 22, 1984, following the announcement of Dom Mintoff’s resignation the same day in Parliament.

Mifsud Bonnici’s tenure as prime minister was seen as a continuation of the Dom Mintoff years.

But the political violence of the 1980s was exacerbated under his tenure as prime minister by the apparent lack of control over other cabinet ministers who were associated with violent criminals.

Relations with the Church have deteriorated on two fronts: the enactment of a bill to seize Church property – initially without compensation – and to take control of denominational schools.

In 1984, a protest by some Malta drydock workers, at which Mifsud Bonnici was present, culminated in the offices of the Maltese Curia being ransacked after the protest ended.

In 1985, Mifsud Bonnici was the main negotiator in the hijacking of EgyptAir Flight 648 in which 60 of the 92 passengers were killed.

After the 1987 elections, which he narrowly lost, Mifsud Bonnici led the Labor Party until 1992, when, following a second electoral defeat, he resigned, to be replaced by Alfred Sant. He held his seat until the next election in 1996.

Sant had credited Karmenu Mifsud with creating new openings in Maltese society for the MLP, which had by then become “too squeezed into the comfort zone of its hardcore supporters. Karmenu had succeeded in attracting to Labor and his works the goodwill of members of the literary/artistic community who, during the 1970s, were alienated by Prime Minister Mintoff’s confrontational way of doing politics.

In 2002, Mifsud Bonnici headed the Eurosceptic organization Campaign for National Independence, campaigning against EU membership. He also joined Dom Mintoff’s “Front Maltin Inqumu” (Maltese Arise), to campaign against EU membership.

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