FORGOTTEN QUEENS OF MALTA
With all the comments and opinions being aired about the film Dear Dom, I decided to go and see it with my wife and a friend. I found it very interesting especially with regard to Malta’s dire need to diversify after the closure of the British base and the political tactics used to extract the maximum rent from Nato.
Whether the tactics used in these negotiations helped or hindered future foreign investment in Malta is a matter historians will debate endlessly, but what is not in doubt is that it put Malta more clearly on the map as an independent entity in the eyes of the overseas world.
Someone who also spent her life trying to raise Malta’s awareness on the world map was my great aunt Mabel Strickland who, as readers well know, was the editor and then proprietor of The Times for over 50 years. In 1935 she had founded The Times in conjunction with her father Lord Strickland who was half-Maltese. Lord Strickland was an ex-Prime Minister of Malta following the 1926 compact with the Labour Party. He was also uniquely a member of the British parliament and an ex-colonial governor.
You can imagine therefore that my own interest in Dear Dom was a very personal one. Dom Mintoff had a turbulent relationship with the press in general and more particularly with my aunt. Unlike some, Mabel was never afraid to stand up and speak out if she disagreed with government policy as she often did with governments of all political persuasions. I have heard that Mr Mintoff admired Mabel but, like most politicians, he was never best pleased when criticised.
The film, unfortunately, gave only a passing reference to Black Monday (in October 1979) when thugs attacked and set fire to The Times at Strickland House while being watched, but surprisingly not stopped, by the police. This was a significant and very regrettable event in Maltese history along with other dreadful incidents on that day.
In the previous few years, behind the scenes there were a number of other less well known decisions made by the government at the time which greatly impacted Mabel’s life and inevitably mine as well. These particular decisions were taken in 1977 and 1978 and undoubtedly affected my aunt – yet by association, their effect impacted my life in a serious and wholly detrimental way.
Mabel never married but decided in 1975 to make me her sole and universal heir so as to pass down, through the Strickland family, the assets and business interests she had inherited from her father (my great grandfather) or that she had built up during her lifetime. Mabel had not changed her will since 1940 (in the heat of the Second World War) and before changing her will in 1975 she had discussed her decision at length with trusted friends before informing me of her very carefully considered decision. In 1975 Mabel was 76 and I was a mere fledgling of 21.
Many of our childhood holidays were spent staying at Mabel’s villa in Malta where we had such fun. My aunt had got to know me even better between 1972 and 1975 when she used to visit me in London where I was training to be a chartered accountant. We got on really well and I loved her sense of humour.
In planning her succession she later told me she had purposely chosen the senior branch of the family to inherit her estate specifically to continue the connection between the Strickland family name and her business and property interests.
Mindful of the fact that my elder brother would one day have responsibilities in the UK, she chose me to be her successor hoping that I would come to live, work and possibly marry in Malta. She believed I had the interest and the training to maintain the independence and success of the press and she was adamant I should not become what she called an absentee landlord. She also asked me to continue her lifelong work and legacy in furthering good relations between Malta, the UK and Europe.
However, government policy in Malta in 1975 did not allow foreign ownership of local companies and this was later enacted in the Foreign Interference Act. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in the years leading up to the final closure of the British base, Mr Mintoff wanted Malta for the Maltese and did not want Maltese jobs to be dependent on non-Maltese entities and the media companies were a primary target for him. This was of particular concern to Mabel since, although she herself held a Maltese passport, I was only part Maltese and held a UK passport.
Foreseeing this problem, my aunt had set up a trust as part of her 1975 will in order to hold the majority shareholding in The Times from the date of her death until such time as I was able to achieve Maltese nationality. When this happened, it was proposed that the trust would pass the shareholding over to me before being wound up. This was a straightforward procedure that many families have adopted in the UK to safeguard assets and protect the jobs of their employees. Although the trust at that time was ultimately for the benefit of her heir, it had strictly charitable objectives during its lifetime and was to be overseen by independent Maltese trustees.
Making even firmer plans, Mabel also decided to adopt me with the full consent of my parents and myself. This adoption was initially passed by the courts in January 1977 just after I arrived to live permanently in Malta. However, very surprisingly, the government of the day caused this application to be blocked before it could be ratified by the courts introducing retrospective legislation most of which still stands today stopping anyone other than a minor being adopted and stopping the automatic right of an adoptee getting nationality.
Bizarrely it also stopped any woman over 60 from adopting – yet a man, of course, could still father a child who would certainly get Maltese nationality. This was a major setback for Mabel, but in her typical manner she then joked that if she could not adopt me then she would ‘marry’ me instead. Even though this was said in jest, the government of the day changed the law and constitution of the country to render such a marriage null and void with regard to nationality qualifications.
As if all of this were not enough, in January 1978 the government of the day decided to ban me from Malta and neither Mabel nor I were ever provided with any explanation for this draconian action, leaving me with no option but to assume that it was done merely to intimidate my aunt.
We only became aware of this ban when I subsequently left Malta to represent my aunt at a newspaper conference in Australia. At this conference I made a speech defending the necessity for the freedom of the presses and criticising recent abuses of those freedoms in Malta. On returning from this conference, at the end of March 1978, I was detained at the airport and deported back to the UK. This decision by Mr Mintoff caused Mabel to become very ill and resulted in my having to stay away from Malta for nine long years.
During these nine years Mabel and I had to correspond by hand delivered letters since she believed her post to be intercepted and her telephone calls to be tapped, such was the reign of fear at the time. My aunt sadly remained ill for much of this time, particularly after the Black Monday incident in 1979 when she nearly died.
To my surprise, in 1979, some two months before Black Monday, Mabel was seemingly persuaded to change her will again. Her legal adviser, by his own admission, helped her with drafting the new will to put it into a legal format and dictated it to her for her to write in her own hand. It was filed with a revised trust (now known as the Strickland Foundation) in August 1979 but, although still her heir, I was not shown the changed will despite my aunt instructing her legal adviser to see me in London the following month.
Despite coming to London at this time, her legal adviser did not come to see me or explain anything to me. Furthermore, I was never given a copy of this 1979 will despite having always been given copies of her earlier wills since I became her heir. Indeed I only became aware of the revised will after Mabel died in late 1988 just short of her 90th birthday and only 18 months after I was finally allowed to return to Malta. Had I known about the changed will I would certainly have asked her about it to ensure that it accurately represented her final wishes.
The Strickland Foundation’s intended objectives, as set out by Mabel, were: (1) to foster the national interest of Malta and in particular to promote in Malta democratic principles, the observance of human rights and the exercise of a free press; (2) to uphold the European character of Malta and support Malta’s continued presence in the Commonwealth; (3) to finance scholarships and other activities for the attainment or furtherance of any of the objects mentioned in this article; (4) to assist in such manner as may be advisable within the means available persons who are or were employees of Allied Newspapers Limited and their member families; (5) to help improve the standard of Maltese journalism and the preservation of its freedom and its independence; (6) to direct, administer and manage the assets of the foundation of the council of administration for promoting the above objects and such other objects as are incidental or conducive to the attainment of the above objects or any of them.
Although Mr Mintoff could never have predicted all the consequences of his actions in this case, the legacy of these decisions continues to haunt me. My ‘legacy’ from Mr Mintoff has therefore been bittersweet so much so that I recently had a meeting with him to try to understand his reasoning and reach some measure of closure on this chapter of the story.
From watching the film Dear Dom, I can believe that even if Mr Mintoff’s underlying motives were good, then his methods of implementing his policies were certainly not fully considered. Of course it is always easy to say these things with the benefit of hindsight but, at the time, one has to use whatever means are available which may be far from ideal. Surely the important point is to treat everybody with the respect that each of us deserves and in accordance with our Christian traditions.
We are now accustomed to seeing allegations of corruption and mismanagement bandied around in the Maltese papers, frequently relating to the award of contracts and permits or suggestions of improper influence being applied to some politicians, judges and businessmen. These were common accusations in the time of the Mintoff governments but sadly they are becoming increasingly frequent again suggesting that the problem is not limited to one political party or business interest and not even only in Malta. The modern view of morality sometimes seems to be that greed is good so long as you get away with it – the Christian idea of helping each other seems to be under strain although I was very impressed in recent weeks to see so many in the parishes in Malta working together to make the Easter celebrations a truly meaningful and spiritual celebration for all.
As regards my own situation, I am not happy with the way my aunt’s two executors carried out their fiduciary duties over the past 20 years. They were executors of my aunt’s estate as well as being, at the same time, the representatives of the principal legatee which is the Strickland Foundation. Yet Mabel’s chosen heir is neither on the board of the newspaper group nor on the council of the Strickland Foundation which is the controlling shareholder of The Times. Instead, the board of trustees, on which the two executors have sat, appointed the two sons of the executors onto the council of the Strickland Foundation, despite no Strickland being represented there.
The end result is that the two extraneous families of my aunt’s executors now sit on the council of the foundation, which administers her legacy, while her carefully chosen heir has been continually excluded from both organisations by the majority shareholder with no explanation to date.
Furthermore, it would seem that Mabel’s home and the majority of her family’s sentimental possessions now belong to the same Strickland Foundation and although the heir has the rights of use and habitation for his lifetime, his family’s life has been made difficult by the self same people who were originally chosen to protect his interests when exercising their fiduciary duties.
Other assets, which I understand should have been passed to me, including my aunt’s personal papers, have been withheld from me and I have had to take legal action to try to recover them with the consequent waste of many years before justice is hopefully achieved. We all know the old saying that ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.
I have therefore, partly by dint of Mr Mintoff’s government policies, and partly by the actions of third parties, lost most of my inheritance originally intended to ensure the continuance of the Strickland family and the Mabel Strickland legacy in Malta and, like the National Bank of Malta’s shareholders and many others in the Dear Dom film have, in effect, become yet another statistic of the Mintoffian aftermath.
I wonder if Mr Mintoff could ever have envisaged this outcome.