Mari Montegriffo, 67, has been a hard working supporter of the GSLP for almost 40 years, an elected representative for 23 years, a Minister for eight years and the first female Mayor of Gibraltar. As a politician, she always worked for Gibraltar to remain British and to persuade the Foreign and Commonwealth never to give away any sovereignty to the Spanish Government.
She went to the Loreto Convent School where she remembers Jane Bassadone teaching her English. Much of the teaching by the nuns was through fear but they provided a good education. She was appointed prefect of her class, school captain of sport and head girl. In sport, she specialised in tennis, basketball and net ball. From tennis, she transferred to squash where she was female champion of Gibraltar for twelve years. Her talent was such that she played in the men’s league.
Her first job, aged 17, was as personal secretary to Bob Peliza where she remained for five years. This was her introduction to local politics where she worked for the fledgling Integration with Britain Party. Bob went on to win the election of 1974. In 1970, she moved to London for four years to work for the National Data Processing Service which was part of the Post Office. This was to encourage the use of computers by the general public. At the same time, with the permission of her manager, she attended a course to learn about business studies. In 1973, Bob Peliza called on her to thank her for her previous help in assisting to achieve the election victory for the IWBP. He gave her a signed photo on which he had written ‘Thank you for getting me into government with your typewriter’.
Upon her return to the Rock in 1974, she was employed by Blands on the shipping side. Joe Bossano, on a visit to recruit members for the TGWU, met Mari, who hugely impressed him and, when she had joined the union, invited her to become the shop steward for the private sector. Her name was put forward and she was elected. This was the moment when she started her political life which she dedicated to working to keep Gibraltar British and improving life on the Rock.
Her uncle, Aurelio Montegriffo, approached her to join the AACR but this was declined after she met Joe and was convinced that the AACR was moving to the political right, away from its working class roots.
In 1980, she joined the GSLP and soon after was elected to the executive council and the following year a candidate for the 1984 election and was the fourth successful GSLP candidate with 3815 votes. The AACR won the election. The hated Brussels Agreement was the most important matter on the political agenda. Joe Bossano appointed her to be shadow Minister for medical and health services plus the environment, sport and computerisation. He told his shadow ministers that Gibraltar must not depend on the British Government for any financial aid as there would be a political price to be paid at a later date. At the time, the economy was at a standstill as the Ministry of Defence was pulling out to be followed by the closure of the Dockyard. Joe saw that one way of filling the economic gap, as MOD expenditure represented 70% of Gibraltar’s economy, was to make Gibraltar into a financial centre.
The GSLP won the 1988 and the 1992 elections and she became the Minister for all the shadow positions she had held in Opposition for the eight years. In 1988, she was appointed unanimously in the House of Assembly as the first female Mayor, a position she held until 1995.
The Government’s greatest achievements were the land reclamation, scholarships for any pupil given a place in a further education establishment thus assisting social mobility, and the privatisations of companies within the civil service such as GibTelecom, Aqua Gib (water and electricity) and to create government owned companies like Gibraltar Joinery Building Services.
As Minister for Sport she negotiated the return of the MOD squash courts in South Barracks and handed the building over to the Gibraltar Squash Association.
Other milestones were to allow schools and the community to use all the sporting facilities. The Victoria stadium’s surfaces were changed to artificial ones and this included the laying down of a bolidtan athletic track. This resulted in a huge improvement in local sport and in 1995 the Islands Games were held in Gibraltar. There was also a royal visit in the form of Prince Andrew.
At the time, females were not allowed to join the rowing clubs and she is grateful to Sir John Chapple for forcibly suggesting to the clubs that she should be invited as Minster of Sport to events and dinners.
Mari found the Gibraltar Health Authority to be in meltdown. Upon her appointment as Minister for Health, she was taken on a long walk round the wards, theatres and rooms in the old St. Bernard’s hospital. She found everything to be in a disastrous condition. Her ideas were totally at variance from the previous AACR government who had brought out a Chief Executive, Ralph Murray, who was commissioned to write a report. He made many recommendations but the new Minister did not accept any of them. When his contract expired, it was not renewed. Her first decision was to totally refurbish the hospital. When she started she had an annual budget of £8 million and when she left eight years later, it had grown to £23 million.
Another important decision was the abolition of private practice by doctors working for the GHA. Private rooms in the hospital were discontinued. All doctors had to be registered with the General Medical Council. Overseas doctors from the European Union had to join the GMC. Mari was adamant that there was huge abuse of the medical services by allowing GHA contract doctors to indulge in private practice. She was appalled that Gibraltarians on low incomes could not afford to pay for consultations and operations and would be moved to the end of the queue.
There is an essential difference between St Bernard’s hospital with 30,000 potential patients and a major English hospital with a catchment population of some 400,000.
When Mari started as Minister, there was a matron in charge of nursing. This rank was abolished in England. Sheffield College was consulted and came out to advice. The Sheffield team was told that she was thinking of appointing a director and a deputy director of nursing with the director taking over the position of matron. This was agreed with the director taking on additional responsibilities such as looking after the wards and the cleanliness of the hospital and looking after anything to do with the nurses.
Mari got in touch with the Nursing Council in the UK to sort out the differences in grades between England and Gibraltar. The College of Sheffield came to the hospital, liked what was seen and said there was no need for Gibraltar to follow the new nursing grades in England. It was also agreed that potential nurses would no longer have to fly to England to be registered as a nurse. Instead, nurses could register with the College who would make regular visits and supervise the training. When a nurse decided to study to became a specialist in, say, mid-wifery or mental health then a year or more would be spent at Sheffield and would return with the necessary qualification.
Mari does not believe that the GHA needs a chief executive. In her time, Ernest Lima was both financial director and de facto, chief executive.
Her time as Mayor was a fantastic experience and she swiftly realised that her knowledge of Gibraltar history was minimal. During her time at school, the syllabus covered British history in detail but there was no mention of Gibraltar’s history. She spoke to Pepe Rosado and other local historians and went on a crash course to remedy this defect. This was to enable her to answer the myriad of questions asked by visitors. These were so basic that she realised that there is a lack of basic knowledge about Gibraltar in the United Kingdom.
A few changes were made to the civic functions in so far that the rule was altered as to what charities qualify for inclusion in the Mayor’s list of charities. Any charity had to be registered. She also found that all religions on the Rock had to be formally registered and there had been 84 religions registered.
As Mayor, she was invited to many official functions such as the Lord Mayor’s Show. In 1988, she was invited by the Lord Mayor, along with the Mayors of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and Lake Havasu, Arizona to attend the last tall ships’ race. This was the last such race because London Bridge had been bought by Lake Havasu for US$2.5 and was to be installed across a narrow channel leading from Lake Havasu to Thompson Bay. The replacement bridge across the Thames would be too low to allow the tall ships to sail through.
She was able to manage her time to deal with being a full time Minister (85%) and Mayor (15%) and so never felt she was too burdened. The departure of the MOD also meant that the number of functions was reduced. Her first granting of the Freedom of Gibraltar was to HMS Calpe. Ironically, three months later, it was closed down by the MOD.
Mari has always been involved with music which is her great love. She is a singer, guitarist and keyboard player. Today, she is a member of ‘Our Latin Way’ which sings at charity events two or three times a month. In 1988, she represented Gibraltar in a song festival in Charleville, Cork and came second to the entry from Ireland.
Since retirement in 2007, Mari has found that once a politician, always a politician and she still finds that many voters approach her with their problems and hope that she will act as a short cut to the relevant minister.
She is worried about Brexit and following the delivery by the Prime Minister of the Article 50 letter triggering this into play warns that all Gibraltarians must keep a close watch on mandarins in the FCO. The Chief Minister and the deputy are leaving no stone unturned in their determination to obtain the best possible deal for Gibraltar. She accepts there is no definite answer until the final agreement is reached with the European Union. She applauds the decision to engage Sir Graham Watson to look after Gibraltar’s interests in Brussels and congratulates past governors for all their support ranging from General Sir William Jackson and Field Marshal Sir John Chapple to Lord Luce.
Mari said: “I think from now on, Joe Bossano should be included in all future top level negotiations between the Gibraltar Government and British Ministers. Joe is a seasoned negotiator and has decades of experience dealing with British ministers and also the European Union. He knows all the senior politicians especially the Exit Minister, David Davies. I do not know whether this omission is because he is reluctant to be involved or whether the Chief Minister does not consider his involvement to be necessary.
My overriding concern is for the United Kingdom Government to totally decolonise Gibraltar. I do not accept that the 2006 Constitution fully did this. In my opinion, Gibraltar remains a Crown Colony”.
words | Mike Brufal