Governing the periphery

A look at decentralisation efforts in the Maltese islands across the centuries.

Whether it was Colin Renrew’s chiefdoms theory or David Trump’s more plausible competing communities dominated by priestly casts in our prehistoric past, an array of decentralising models varying in mode, purpose, and scope have been employed across the ages, notwithstanding the limited territorial dimension of the Maltese Islands.

Decentalisation, more often than not, is the mere lunga mano of central authority, be it administrative, military, or religious, or sheer land partition. Some thirty-two-odd fiefs, belonging to the Sicilian royal Secrezia, were alienated from the royal domain in return for military service in early medieval Malta, dividing the limited territory into several smaller pockets. Some fiefs were even older, possibly having originated during the Arab domination.

The medieval ‘maħras’ or coastal guardia, an early warning system of defence for Malta and Gozo, was provided for by fief-holders but was a centrally organised and controlled militia, whereas the dejma, a later development, was originally the initiative of individual communities defending their town or village, developing independently of the Aragonese central power but eventually merging into the militia.

It was only at the beginning of the 15th century that a network of diocesan cappelania was set up. The 13 chaplaincies in Malta grouped a number of relatively sparse villages and hamlets, whereas the four cappelle in Gozo were set in each quarter of the territory. The cappellani were entitled to collect certain tights and revenues from their parishioners and could also use ecclesiastical sanctions to enforce their authority. The number of parishes grew over the years in step with the growing population, maintaining a continuous influential role in local affairs.

Since the Middle Ages, the defence of the Maltese was focused primarily on three fortresses: the Castrum Maris, the Gozo Citadella, and Mdina, which was also the political and administrative capital. With the coming of the Knights of St John, the political and administrative fulcrum shifted to the Castrum Maris in the Grand Harbour. The Order retained three municipal authorities, with members nominated directly by the Grand Master. These were the Università of Citta Notabile, the Università of Valletta and the Three Cities, and the Università of Gozo. All three had similar constitutions and functions with the additional responsibility of the Valletta Università to ensure adequate provision of grain for the whole populace.

The Castrum Maris.

However, the territory was only partly covered by the three municipalities. The Vilhena Code of Laws of 1724 did not refer to any local governance and the situation remained unaltered until the 28th August 1773, when a declaration of Grandmaster Francisco Ximenes de Texada divided Malta into nine districts. Some districts comprised only one locality whilst others were composed of a group of villages.

Mayors and Jurors were appointed yearly to keep law and order within the boundary of their district. The Mayor employed up to four ‘policemen’ to assist him in his duties. He could decide upon smaller crimes, not exceeding five scudi, but kept suspects of more grievous crimes in a cell in his house until taken to the Court of the Captain at the nearest municipality. Half of the contravention fines imposed by the municipal court were due to the Major and Jurors. A Kattapan was also appointed to supervise local hygiene but this position seems to have been left vacant within five years and was eventually dropped. The Code de Rohan of 1795 incorporated the Ximenes local governance provisions with some modifications. It seems to go for a two-tier system, appointing a mayor for a group of villages to oversee the work of a jurat for each village within his district.

The Code de Rohan of 1795.

The De Rohan model was soon superseded by the French system of local government in June 1798 whereby Malta was divided again into twelve Cantons, further sub-divided into a small number of municipalities. The French administration nominated six members as well as a justice of the peace for each canton. The members took an oath of office prescribed by the French Republican law. But these appointments were very short-lived since, in September, the village communities rose against the French domination.

Ad hoc committees were organised by the town and village communities to manage the logistics of the insurrection and a National Assembly was set up with representatives from the various local committees. On his arrival on the scene, Captain Alexander Ball took hold of the situation, insisting that representatives of the communities be elected by the heads of family within the respective community. The newly formed National Congress was chaired by Ball himself and comprised representatives from 22 Maltese towns and villages. The Gozo battalion was chaired by the Archpriest of the Cathedral and was made up of six community leaders.

At the onset of British rule, Captain Ball appointed a Luogotenente for each of the 23 main communities. Sindki were also appointed for the six main village communities in Gozo. The Proclamation of the Royal Commissioner Sir Charles Cameron of 14th December 1801 and subsequent dispositions, elaborated further the role of the Logutenent, as the lunga mano of the central administration. The Logutenent represented the central administration, carried a uniform, was salaried, and was given a place of honour in religious functions. The Logutenent had several policemen under his command and had to ensure that no person under his watch was treated unjustly. He was empowered to exert fines not exceeding 20 skudi, to mediate between parties, to avoid litigation in the national courts, to monitor the correct weight, standards, and quality of food and other merchandise, and to establish the price of grain.

Sir Alexander Ball

In June 1815 Sir Thomas Maitland re-introduced by proclamation a two-tier system, dividing the territory into six districts: five in Malta together with the Gozo district, each headed by a member of the Maltese nobility. The previous Malta logutenenti and Gozo sindki retained their salaries and functions but henceforth they became Deputati del Luogotenente del Governo. However, this seeming shift towards regionalisation did not change anything in effect and the local administration remained squarely in the hands of the Deputati. Maitland’s sole purpose seems to have been to ingratiate himself and get the support of the six noblemen concerned.

Sir Thomas Maitland

A definite shift towards regionalisation was, however, brought about by the Royal Commission of 1836, which held that the local authorities were too much of a burden on the Maltese coffers. By Ordinance XI of 1839, all Luogotenenti and their Deputies were dismissed and replaced with seven Syndics. The new Syndics were purposely selected from the legal profession because, in addition to the rights and duties of the preceding deputati logutenenti, they acted as magistrates of the judiciary police. Syndics were also empowered to enter into houses, buildings, or enclosed precincts, to conduct searches and arrest persons guilty of, or suspected of offenses. As time went by, a series of circulars continued to pile on the syndics all kinds of duties such as monthly visits of orphans, sitting on the primary school committee, making lists of roads to be built or surfaced and, from 1867 onwards, presiding on the country District Committees which were set up as consultative committees.

In May-June 1867, the very first municipal elections for district committees took place. No great enthusiasm was shown by the electorate as only 482 cast their vote out of a total of 2,394 eligible voters. The low turnout in three consecutive elections caused the central government to consider suppressing them but, after eight years of inactivity, new elections were held in 1882. The seven-district system stood until the Royal Commission of 1880 further reduced the number of districts to four. However, the appointed syndics were fewer than four, and very often they were detailed to assume responsibility for more than one district at a time. This form of local government came to a definite end through Ordinance III of 1896.

The 20th century

The twentieth century ushered in various means of communication that rendered unnecessary the permanent physical presence of representation of power and control. Nevertheless, the short stretch of sea separating Gozo from the main island may have motivated the creation of a regional Gozo Civic Committee in 1958. It was recognised by the colonial administration and was instituted as the Gozo Civic Council, with a supervisory role over government departments in Gozo. The Council was further empowered through an Ordinance XI of 1961 ‘to make provision for local government in Gozo and for purposes connected therewith’. It lasted 13 years when, following a referendum, it was dissolved by an Act of Parliament on 4th December 1973.

The inauguration of the Gozo Civic Council.

Nevertheless, towards the end of the millennium, a renewed interest in the decentralisation of public administration had an impact on public service and eventually saw the creation of several agencies within the public sector, as well as ten area colleges grouping the compulsory schooling institutions of their area.

After a lapse of a hundred years, local governance was again put on the agenda of the central political power. In the wake of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which put a strong emphasis on subsidiarity, a party in government aspiring for full membership in the European Union could not do without a modicum of devolution of power in the form of local authorities. The issue was whether to opt for a locality-based entity or the regional model and the choice fell on the locality, most probably because it was thought more politically convenient despite the obvious disadvantages of the economy of scales and return on investment. The Local Council Act was promulgated in 1993, instituting 68 local councils. The Act also set up a Local Councils Association, including an elected representation of five regions existing only in name. The main aim of the Association seems to have been membership in the Local and Regional Committee of the Council of Europe and subsequently in the EU Committee of the Regions. Both the party in Opposition and the Church authorities were not very keen on the creation of local authorities. The reason may not have been the same but most probably it emanated from the same cause.

Decentralisation processes that have been discussed are mainly actions taken by central power to organise its administrative system while reaching out to the periphery. A notable exception is the capillary diffusion of the church institution, starting with the first 17 Cappelle in the 15th Century and keeping in step with the expansion of the population spread over the whole territory and in continuous contact with all strata of society. In the early 1950s, another form of decentralisation occurred with the creation of non-government civic committees, taking shape in several towns and villages.

A few miles away from the Maltese Islands, the outcome of the Sicilian regional elections of 1947 indicated a substantial increase in support for the left parties while punishing the Christian Democrats, with only 20% of electoral consent. This brought to the fore the issue of political positioning for Catholics in Italy. Some quarters within the Roman Curia held that the centrist politics of the Christian Democrats led by Alcide De Gasperi were too weak and they pushed for a more conservative stance incorporating parties further right.

Pope Pius XII asked Luigi Gedda, then vice-president of the Catholic Action movement, to set up an organisation aimed at promoting ‘a new Christian Civilisation’. In other words, the task of this organisation was to radicalise the opposition between the Christian Democrats and the left-oriented parties, bringing about a political polarisation that would induce Catholics as anti-communists, to refrain from supporting the moderate socialist parties in the Italian political spectrum.

Pope Pius XII and Luigi Gedda.

The Civic Committees in Italy were founded by Gedda in February 1948 and in just a few weeks 20,000 committees at parochial and diocesan levels were formed across Italy. This incredible growth was due to the material and moral support given by the bishops as instructed. In 1965 Pope Paul VI convened the Italian Comitati Civici, briefing them in more explicit terms on their role to guide and educate the citizens in making political decisions in the light of the social doctrine of the Church.

In 1950, just two years after their inception in Italy, civic committees made their appearance in various towns and villages of Malta. Twenty-eight civic committees were created between 1950 and 1973, when they ultimately declined. It is hard to say whether they were the autonomous initiative of civic-minded individuals, whether they had been effectively masterminded or encouraged centrally, or to what extent they were inspired by the Italian Comitati Civici. Nevertheless, evident similarities cannot be dismissed as mere coincidence.

A letter sent by the Żebbuġ Civic Committee to the Office of the Prime Minister in 1968, requesting approval to erect a bust in honour of national poet Dun Karm Psaila.

In the early sixties, the setting up of civic committees increased in momentum, coinciding with the politico-religious situation of the period, and one cannot but notice the fact that the civic committees had a preponderance of clergy and members of religious organisations as well as lay organisations working close to the parish. The Parish Priest was always somehow involved and in some cases such as St Julian’s, Luqa, and Dingli, occupied the position of president. The Marsa Civic Council was set up in 1953 with the encouragement of the then parish priest, Patri Feliċjan Bilocca, who was later a staunch promoter of the Christian Workers’ Party. L-Orizzont of 21st July 1966 points out that the Civic Committees did more political than social work.

Similarly to the Italian model, the Malta Civic Committees also resolved to unify at the national level with the formation of the Confederation of Civic Councils, founded on 20th June 1966. Its main aims were to gain official recognition from the government, to encourage the establishment, and to assist and coordinate the work of Civic Committees in every locality, ensuring that the country’s needs were met. The Nationalist government never gave official recognition to the Confederation and the Civic Committees. Apart from a reluctance to share decisional power at that point of political history, most probably the more centrist flank of the party led by Borg Olivier was keeping at bay what looked like a movement supported by an opposing, more conservative, clerical wing headed by Herbert Ganado. In the first year of its formation in 1966, the Confederation concluded that the people were not yet mature enough to vote for their local Civic Committee but, five years later, following the 1971 general elections that saw the Labour Party coming to power, it promptly sent a memorandum to all parties requesting local elections. This request was not refused downright but was not acceded to.

The Local Councils Act

Twenty years later, when the Local Council Act was put for discussion in Parliament in 1993, both the Labour Party and the Church Authorities agreed that local authorities should not be contested by political parties but should be composed of citizens who work together for the benefit of the residents. The party in government at the time insisted on carrying on with its plans of a council for each town and village and, later on, for a short period also committees for hamlets, completely ignoring the unnecessary fragmentation. This brought about a democratic deficit and eventually the Labour Party had no other choice but to present its candidates for local elections and gradually took the lead in most local councils.

There have been several attempts to limit the fragmentation brought about by the number of local authorities and to crystallise their proper scope. The regional tier was developed piecemeal, at first just for the coordination of local enforcement, and eventually expanding to more areas of competence. Subsequent reforms tried to strike an optimal balance between subsidiarity, cost-effectiveness, and efficiency, shifting competence between regional and local levels. However, these reforms were exclusively focused on local and regional governments as if they were a parallel world to the decentralised structures of other aspects of governance that reach out to the same periphery.

The 68 local councils of the Maltese Islands.

Main photo: Militia soldiers gathered at ‘Dejma crosses’ present in several villages prior to being assigned to duties.

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