Sunday, 22 March 2009

Not There Yet


22nd March 2009 - The Malta Independent on Sunday

March is a fantastic month for mid-week holidays as they can easily be extended to weekend breaks. With a public holiday last Thursday, many will go to work tomorrow refreshed from a weekend break lasting four days. The following week the same will happen with Freedom Day falling on a Tuesday, permitting another four-day weekend before returning to work on April Fool’s day. Quality of life doesn’t get much better than that.

But the point I wish to muse about is whether it still makes sense to have so many mid-week holidays, and whether in this challenging world we can afford to have time off to enjoy religious holidays devoid of any international validation or local tradition (19 March, the feast of St Joseph); whether the time has come to show political maturity to streamline the five national holidays and focus on one or two national days.

We can never claim to have reached an acceptable level of political maturity as long as we continue celebrating national day events in tribal traditions. It is opportune to discuss this matter this year when we will soon celebrate the 30th anniversary of the closure of the military base (Freedom Day) and the 45th anniversary of Independence in September.

In tribal tradition, Labour will hijack Freedom Day festivities just as much at the PN will hijack the festivities of Independence Day. Foreign observers will be forgiven for deducing that we have a Cyprus-like division between the Turks and the Greek communities. And if these two dates are so crucial to our political operators, do we really need to celebrate another three national days on 7 June, 8 September and 13 December?

To my mind, the events we commemorate on 7 June and 8 September are stages in a process that led to independence on 21 September 1964. While independence comes at one particular point in time, celebrating that particular point in time anniversary involves celebrating the whole process leading to it. We can’t afford a holiday for every important stage.

The same can be said about Republic Day. Changing from a foreign monarchy to a republican constitution is more a matter of form than substance and we cannot afford to celebrate every time we change the Constitution.

So it should be possible with goodwill on all sides to strike three national days off the holiday calendar. It is up to the government and the MCESD partners to come to agreement about whether this loss of public holidays is to be compensated by an increase in vacation leave or whether it should, at least in part, strengthen our efficiency by reducing such holidays without compensation. But at least, by reducing the five national days to two the disruption of mid-week holidays is alleviated.

These days are inter-linked. Independence gave us a sovereign birth even though the conditions attached to it negated the proper evolution of our newly acquired sovereignty. It did however give us the instruments with which to dismantle these conditions, leading to their renegotiation providing for gradual phasing out our dependence on the military spending of a foreign government. Independence gave us the birth date to exist; Freedom Day marked the graduation of our statehood to a level of economic sustainability without dependence on former colonisers. One would have not been possible without the other.

Twenty years ago I ended a public speech I made in a conference to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Independence as follows:

“In my opinion, just as a young man on his birth date celebrates his birth whatever the circumstances in which he was born, so should Malta commemorate appropriately the anniversary of its political birth. We should however reserve the right of those who complain about the performance of those, who blinded more by the form than the substance, brought our sovereign birth on a bed of thorns when with more astuteness, wisdom and love they could have had our birth on a bed of straw if not on expensive cotton sheets.”

I still feel the same way today. We should celebrate Independence Day as our primary national day, as it is the day when our sovereign statehood was born. In doing so we would not be celebrating the ceremony that took place on 21st September 1964 or the Independence constitution that came into effect on that date. We would be celebrating the whole process that brought us to such statehood from the first expressed desires by Mikiel Anton Vassalli in the 19th century, Manwel Dimech in the early 20th and Mintoff and Borg Olivier in the post-war era.

At a distance of 30 and 45 years we should be able to overcome the prejudices of the individuals who were directly involved in the events and pass an objective assessment on the significance of the events well beyond the role played by individuals concerned at that particular point in time. To put it more clearly: Mintoff could never accept 21st September as a national day, as for him it was a betrayal by Borg Olivier for accepting harsh conditions rather than hold out for a better deal. In many ways Mintoff proved his point when he came to power seven years later and renegotiated the Defence Agreement.

Mintoff could not overcome his prejudices because for him celebrating 21st September was celebrating Borg Olivier’s incompetence. For us, at a distance of 45 years, free from the prejudices of those directly involved, celebrating independence is not celebrating the particular agreements negotiated by Borg Olivier. It is celebrating the process spanning centuries that led first to political independence in 1964 and by natural progression to economic adulthood and political maturity in 1979.

It is time for this country to move on to a new level of political maturity. It is time to accept Independence as our official national day and Freedom Day as an important national landmark, and for these two important days to be truly celebrated on a national not partisan level. It is time to remove the farcical arrangement of five national days. It is time to move on because we are not there yet.

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