by Alice Mascarenhas and Clive Mendez
Maurice Xiberras, a pioneering Gibraltarian politician who championed close links with Britain, died suddenly at the weekend at the age of 80 in the UK.
Yesterday, the flag at the Gibraltar Parliament building flew at half-mast in his honour.
A former teacher and trade unionist, Mr Xiberras served as a minister in the IWBP/Isola Government of 1969 and in the seventies as Leader of the Opposition. He would remain on the Opposition benches from 1972 to 1979, when he would retire from politics and move to the UK for personal reasons.
But Gibraltar was never far from his thoughts and he would remain a close political observer throughout his life. As a frequent contributor to this newspaper he kept a close watch on local politics and Gibraltar and in recent months on Brexit.
A strong defender of integration he was to suffer a blow in 1976, when UK Minister Roy Hattersley ruled out integration for Gibraltar.
This would eventually lead to the disbandment of the IWBP, the Integration with Britain Party.
But standing as an independent, Mr Xiberras would remain in the House of Assembly until 1979.
He remained a robust defender of British sovereignty and of a continued close relationship between Gibraltar and the UK.
In 1963 Mr Xiberras became a founder member of the Integration with Britain Movement before it became a party and was a member of the executive committee alongside former Chief Ministers’ Sir Robert Peliza and Joe Bossano.
In the sixties he formed part of the IWBP team at the Constitutional Conference chaired by Lord Shepherd at the John Mackintosh Hall.
Mr Xiberras was first elected into the House of Assembly in 1969 under the then new 1969 Constitution.
The IWBP was to form Government with the Isola Group and he would be made Minister for Labour and Social Security – and later Housing was added to his portfolio.
He would re-enter the political arena in 2003 with the New Labour Party but was not elected.
In the sixties Mr Xiberras left his job as teacher – sacrificing his teaching career to take up politics. Having obtained his MA at Edinburgh University and a teacher’s certificate at Bristol University he taught history and Spanish. From 1962 until 1969 he was in the teaching staff of the Gibraltar Grammar School. For a time he was also Deputy Chairman of the Teacher’s Association.
A keen sportsman, he played football and cricket but excelled in hockey with the Grammarians. In later years he was to take up cycling long-distance and even cycled from the UK to Gibraltar.
The Gibraltar Government presented him with a Gibraltar Medallion of Honour in recognition of their contribution to public services and services to politics.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, saddened to hear of the death of Maurice Xiberras, described him as a man who made an important contribution to Gibraltar politics and who was in Government at a challenging time for Gibraltar.
“Although we have often been on different sides of political arguments, I considered Maurice a friend and was always pleased to see him. I recall seeing him in Parliament in Gibraltar earlier this year on what was probably his last visit to the Rock. It is almost as if Maurice came back to the House to say “goodbye”. Yesterday morning I spoke to his son David to express the condolences of the Government and People of Gibraltar to his family,” Mr Picardo said from London.
Opposition Leader Daniel Feetham, who was a close friend of Mr Xiberras and stood with him in the 2003 election with the then Gibraltar Labour Party before it merged with the GSD, said Gibraltar had lost a great Gibraltarian, but that many too had lost a great friend.
“We have lost, also, a valued and hugely contributing member of the GSD. Maurice was a man of enormous understanding, integrity and humanity,” he said.
“Even when one was on the other end of an argument with him, his honesty, integrity and powerful intellect always shone through, as did his ability to accept, and when agreed, adopt other points of view. He was indefatigable, throughout his life, in his defence of a British Gibraltar both personally and at that time, as a Minister and Member of Parliament with the IWBP.”
Mr Feetham emphasised that “quite simply for Maurice, if you took the Britishness out of Gibraltar, you would be ripping out its heart and soul.”
“Right up to the very end he was defending his homeland by writing to Members of Parliament, Ministers, Governors, and to the Chronicle.”
“His letters were always too long, as he himself recognised, but his analysis was always innovative, deep, accurate, influential and thought provoking,” he added, offering the party’s sincerest condolences to Mr Xiberras’ sons, his brother Peter and the extended family.
Government minister Joe Bossano, who served in Opposition alongside Mr Xiberras between 1972 and 1976, reflected on his dedication to this community during a very challenging time in Gibraltar’s modern history.
He said that Mr Xiberras, alongside Adolfo Canepa, had led the way for Gibraltarians to engage in full-time politics, both having given up careers in teaching in order to do so.
“He was one of the pioneers in being a full time minister, bringing a level of dedication to the job that perhaps had not been very normal previously,” Mr Bossano said.
“He was involved in breaking new ground, giving up a career in teaching for a career in politics at a time when Gibraltar needed people with dedication and energy in the aftermath of the new constitution and Spanish hostility.”
Mr Bossano said Mr Xiberras had played “a very important role” in ensuring Gibraltar was able to adapt to its new circumstances, particularly with the closure of the frontier.
“At that time he was Minister for Labour and was involved in the transition as we went from relying on labour from Spain to labour from Morocco,” Mr Bossano said.
The Speaker of Parliament, Mayor and former Chief Minister Adolfo Canepa, said he had been “shocked and saddened” by the news.
“We went a long way back and we never allowed our political differences to stand between our friendship,” he said.
“We were both young teachers in the Grammar School working together with the teachers association and then we were both members of the House of Assembly.”
It was “Maurice” who had paved the way for him by sacrificing his own teaching career to enter politics, he recognised.
“Maurice would have gone far in the world of education locally but he felt Gibraltar needed his political talents,” Mr Canepa said.
He was, he added, a “self-sacrificing and altruistic person.”
Mr Canepa further described him as a man who had served Gibraltar well and who had been of very high principles.
Joe Caruana, who had served alongside him as Minister in the IWBP/Isola Government, was a friend for over 60 years and first met him when they both served in the GDF in 1956.
“Maurice,” he recalls, “was, together with Joe Pitaluga, instrumental in running the GDF’s magazine STAND EASY. He was a man with down to earth attitude with a very humble nature, his greatest attribute.”
They were to meet again in 1966-67 when the Integration with Britain Movement was formed.
“He became one of the leading lights of the Movement,” he stated.
“In his early days he was, ideologically, a strong Socialist and was nicknamed ‘The Angry Young Man’. Maurice was an academic with a degree in History. “
“His mastery of history made him one of Gibraltar’s best analytical minds in local politics, and moved smoothly, confidently and courageously defending Gibraltar’s interests with British Foreign Office officials and Spanish diplomats.”
Mr Caruana also recalls how as Leader of the Opposition he had accompanied Sir Joshua during the Strasbourg and Paris Ministerial meetings resisting any move that could lead to discussing the Sovereignty of the Rock.
Mr Xiberras’ son David expressed gratitude on behalf of the Xiberras family for the many expressions of condolence received from his father’s friends and colleagues in Gibraltar.
“As a family we are very grateful and touched by the many good wishes we’ve received and the lovely memories shared,” he told the Chronicle.
The Chronicle understands that arrangements for Mr Xiberras’ funeral have yet to be confirmed.
by Alice Mascarenhas and Clive Mendez