The Times Friday, 17th September 2010
The same story repeats itself year in year out. Village feasts abound, fireworks full of colours and sounds are let off while politicians make their rounds. In the process, a few “martyrs” die due to the explosion of fireworks factories. Maltese-style kamikaze.
It is useless to ask what we are waiting for to take action on the senseless noise of petards and the dangerous practices of fireworks factories. On this particular issue, it seems as if action will simply never be taken. Culture and politics mix so well here and I can’t imagine a change in this regard. What Jeremy Boissevain wrote decades ago on saints and politics is still alive and kicking in Maltese society. Just look at the number of politicians who have official roles in band clubs.
I want to make it clear I have nothing against feasts and band clubs. I consider them to be a colourful and lively fabric of Maltese society, symbolising various social facets. Doing away with these would indeed be a cultural loss.
On the other hand, I cannot see how the loud, boring and repetitive bangs of petards during feasts should be permitted. Whole communities are forced to participate in the ritual of noise, even those that live in other parishes and those not in the mood for a feast.
In my hometown Sliema we are forced to hear the noise of five feasts, day-in-day-out, at different times of the day. The respective fireworks fanatics probably compete with each other to see who produces the loudest of noises. Competition with jackhammers and traffic noise pollution is not enough. What counts is making more noise than that produced by the chosen ones of the respective saint.
Of course, non-enthusiasts, elderly persons, the sick, infants and even pets are excluded from this frenzy. Yes, pets. One of my cats has been in trauma for the whole summer because of the noises of successive feasts, constantly seeking places for refuge from the loud petards.
Hence, the village feast, colourful and lively as it may be, is characterised by various willing and unwilling participants. Some enjoy the bangs and the competition with other parishes. Others are having it rammed down their throat. This is not dissimilar to what goes on in societies where people are forced to participate in religious rituals and called to pray whether they are believers or not.
When it comes to the “production” of fireworks, not much more needs to be said about the associated hazards. The dangers arise not only for those who work in them but also all those who live nearby and who enjoy visiting the countryside, especially in areas advertised as country walks. The area near the San Dimitri chapel in Għarb is a case in point. Cambodia has minefields, we have fireworks factories.
The state can surely introduce legislation to reduce the danger surrounding the production of fireworks factories. For example, people dealing with hazardous substances should be appropriately trained and suitably insured. Unstable chemicals should be banned from the manufacture of fireworks and replaced with more stable substances, even if it means the final effect is visually less appealing. Machinery should be certified as safe by appointed independent experts. All chemicals on site should be appropriately stored and segregated. Buildings where fireworks are produced should be built for the purpose to avoid or reduce damage to third parties. Safety data sheets for all hazardous substances should be present on site.
Malta should also accept a European Commission proposal to have fireworks CE-marked, thus increasing safety. Last, but not least, village fireworks factories should be outlawed and be replaced with a centralised professional factory, possibly in a disused quarry. Don’t expect politicians from the PN-PL duopoly to support this, especially those politicians who gain political mileage from the feasts.
Indeed, the big party duopoly will not even consider a moratorium on fireworks production pending inquiries into repeated explosions this year. Once again, irrespective of their petty squabbles, the two big parties have formed an alliance that puts votes over people’s safety.
Future generations will surely look with bewilderment and disbelief at the present political leaders who disregard loss of life like the present generation does when we think how cruel Maltese society was to disabled persons in the past.
The next time you receive a magazine celebrating a village feast, check out the politicians who pose for votes, giving their blessing to the fireworks frenzy. Keep in mind that behind their smiles there lurks the possibility of death and serious injury, the result of this insane circus. Perhaps it would be interesting if such politicians declare their financial relationship with such activities.
The author is chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.