Vincent Tabone: President of Malta who also fought climate change

Eric Montfort
Sunday 25 March 2012 16:55

Few political personalities can look back at the past with as much satisfaction as Vincent Tabone.

An ophthalmologist by profession, he went on to become a minister, a deputy party leader and the fourth president of Malta. During his long dual careers he presided over important changes in the Maltese and international political scene.

Censu, as he was known (the Maltese shorter derivative of the Italian name Vincenzo – he was also of Sicilian descent), was born on Gozo, Malta's sister island. He followed family tradition by entering the medical profession and after graduating in 1937 he served as a Regimental Medical Officer and general duty officer with the Royal Malta Artillery. In his biography, written by Henry Frendo, Tabone recalls "listening with trepidation to Mussolini's speech on the 10th of June 1940", when he declared war on Britain.

Sensing that Malta, then a crucial British base, was going to be the Italians' first target, he hurried out of bed at the St Elmo's Fort in Valletta, where he was serving as lieutenant, and had a narrow escape when six bombs were dropped during the first Italian air raid the following morning. The same day he addressed his regimental colleagues, encouraging them to fight the enemy.

It was during this period that Tabone was involved in locating a strain of polio which was affecting many new-born Maltese. By the end of the war he was studying opthalmology at Oxford, and eventually worked at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, soon making his mark when he helped supervise a campaign using sulphonamide drugs to eradicate trachoma, an infectious eye disease that can cause blindness, in Gozo. Writing in the British Medical Journal in 1951 he explained that these drugs proved to be a milestone in fighting the disease but were not the ideal answer. "Our goal should be to find a method capable of controlling the disease in a matter of days," he wrote.

During the ensuing decade he joined the World Health Organisation, for which he became a trachoma consultant, and he helped launch similar campaigns in Taiwan, Indonesia and Iraq. It was around this time that he formed the Medical Association of Malta, the doctors' union. Eight years later, in 1962, he contested the general election for the first time, but although his Nationalist Party won, he failed to make it to Parliament. He succeeded on his second attempt and was made Minister for Labour, Employment and Welfare.

A newly independent Malta faced problems with the running-down of British forces, but as part of a small ministerial team Tabone helped to diversify the economy, making it more services-orientated, and boosted employment to the extent that by the end of the 1960s emigration to Australia and Canada had practically fizzled out. He was also responsible for new industrial relations legislation and laws benefitting those with special needs.

In 1968, he tabled a motion before the United Nations calling for an action plan in regard to the world's aging population. When the Nationalist Party went into opposition in 1971 he became the party's first official deputy leader. He voted in favour of Malta's changeto a republic in 1974 and was heavilyinvolved in the inter-party talksthat sought to defuse the politicalcrisis which followed the 1981 general election.

When the Nationalist Party returned to government in 1987, Tabone wasappointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, helping to bring a new pro-Western image to Malta. In 1988 he tabled amotion to the UN, calling for the world's climate to be declared as mankind's common heritage. In 1989, Parliament elected him as the republic's fourth President, and later that year hegreeted president George Bush Snr and Mikhail Gorbachev to the summit which brought the Cold War to an end. Hewas also involved in the first papal visit to Malta, when John Paul II visited a year later.

After his retirement from office in 1994, Tabone remained an active observer of the considerable changes that were continuing to take place in Malta. Conservative yet progressive, he worked hard to heal the partisan political divide that had affected Malta for many years. Tabone was a devout Catholic and an exemplary family man, celebrating 70 years of marriage last November.

Vincent (Censu) Tabone, ophthalmologist and politician: born Victoria, Gozo 30 March 1913; President of Malta1989-94; married 1941 Maria Wirth (nine children); died St Julian's, Malta 14 March 2012.

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