The Titanic myth

This past week  in Ireland it has been very difficult to dodge the Titanic.

As the centenary of the sinking of the White Star line’s iconic liner came into view I felt like the guys on the bridge looking at that big lump of ice.

You could see it and you knew you were about to clatter into it, but there was precious little to be done about it.

So the only thing to do this week if you detest syrupy faux history was to brace for impact.

What is remarkable about the Titanic story is that this major maritime disaster had never been appropriately marked in the city that had built to ship.

I did wonder, from time to time, why this was the case.

A colleague of mine who grew up in Loyalist East Belfast and had shipbuilding folk in his line said that there was always a sense of shame over the Titanic.

The ship sank on its maiden voyage and there were question marks over the workmanship that had put the thing together.

I suppose then it is plain to see why the plain folk of East Belfast might want to draw a wee veil over the produce of their shipyard labours.

I generally detest interpretive centres because they are purveyors of a sugar coated junior infants take on history.

They sell a tooth fairy version of events.

In the orgy of Titanic reportage here there hasn’t been a single mention of the city and society that built the ship.

When the Titanic was built in the Harland & Wolff shipyard it was dangerous to be one of the few Catholics employed there.

It remained so for all the decades it remained in business.

On June 6th 1994 Maurice O’Kane, a welder and fifty year old father of three children, was shot dead as he worked in Harland & Wolff.

His murderer was a UVF gunman and also an employee of the yard.

This was part of a venerable tradition in Belfast shipyards.

When the place finally closed in 1999 of the remaining 1745 workers only 69 were Catholics.

If the historical context of any event is excised then it becomes inexplicable.

The Titanic was built in the midst of the Home Rule crisis in Ireland.

The Shipyard workers were Ulster Unionism’s brown shirts and their role was to make sure that the Taigs in Belfast knew their place.

The implicit agreement was the Ulster business class would guarantee a job for Sammy the riveter if he put his muscle into blocking Home Rule.

Orangeism was the cultural glue for this deal and it worked.

During this period anyone in the mean streets of Ballyhackamore who advocated class politics were considered to be “a rotten Prod” and they were attacked as a Lundy.

The idea that the poor of the Falls and the Shankhill might have common interests and unite around common aims was a nightmare scenario for the local bourgeoisie.

The Ship was launched deliberately the day after the Home Rule Bill was introduced into the Commons.

The Titanic was meant to arrive in New York the day after the first reading of the Bill.

The symbolism would have screamed its message across the Atlantic.

“Only Protestant Belfast can do this! We are superior to the rest of the island. WE are better!”

Once the iceberg had been struck by the unsinkable product of Harland & Wolff’s bigoted workforce the ship didn’t last as long as a Loyalist Hunger strike.

Many of the 1,514 people who perished out of the 2,223 on board were locked in steerage as she carried only enough lifeboats for 1,178.

The news of the disaster coincided with the Home Rule Bill being passed with a substantial majority in the Commons.

The loss of the Titanic was a hammer blow to the prestige of East Belfast’s labour aristocracy.

The Great War saved them from Home Rule and fighting the Kaiser also artificially respirated the Belfast ship yards with orders.

These days there are no big liners built on the Lagan.

The once proud working class communities of East Belfast have become pitiable ghettos on welfare.

Without their birthright jobs in the shipyards boys from East Belfast are woefully undereducated and often functionally illiterate.

The Northern statelet has been patched up to a point where it is slowly becoming recognisable as a modern western European society.

The Taigs, once locked below decks, now stand as equals on the bridge.

This would have been an appalling vista to the Orangemen who built the Titanic.

Education is the key and now in the North it is more important to do your masters than to be a Grand Master.

When I lectured at the University of Ulster in 1998 to social work students I saw an entire cohort of bright, assertive women from a nationalist background coming through the system.

I trust that many of them are now in senior professional positions.

Sammy’s wee Ulstur was never meant to be like this!

The current arrangement at Stormont  is exactly the type of deal that Loyalist shipyard workers  helped to torpedo in 1974 during the Ulster Workers Council strike that brought down Sunningdale.

At that point ships were still being built in Belfast.

Contrary to popular nationalist myth there wasn’t anything etched in rivets on the hull of the Titanic.

I was told as a child that that the slogan “No Pope here” was   written on the vessel.

Like most myths it often tells a greater truth.

Harland & Wolff, like the rest of the major workplaces in Belfast, operated a sectarian employment policy.

A practice they would also implement in their yards on the Clyde and at a certain football club.

In Belfast if a Catholic was fortunate to get employment in ship building then they were at constant threat of attack or be the victims of industrial “accidents”.

The dropping of red hot rivets onto a papist head being a favoured method of letting the Taigs known who was boss.

The same fine workmanship that Paddy was told he couldn’t aspire to achieve was a fatal pathogen in structure of the Titanic.

The wrought iron rivets, placed by hand, were the weak point.

Many of them popped as the ship hit the iceberg a glancing blow on the starboard side.

Designed to stay afloat with four compartments flooded the Titanic was fatally compromised with five full of seawater.

The evacuation was a shambles with many of the lifeboats half empty.

People died needlessly.

Now instead of building ships that sink first time out East Belfast has a Titanic interpretive centre that would very quickly disappear without trace if it didn’t have the life jacket of public money.

Last year the Northern Ireland Audit Office calculated that the centre would need 390,000 visitors a year-that’s 1100 a day.

So far the response of the paying public has been underwhelming to say the least.

Perhaps it is because the centre peddles a myth of a “shared history” when in fact the doomed vessel was built in a Belfast that was bigoted, divided, unequal and dangerous for Catholics.

That the self-regarding shipyard workers invested their cultural pride in a ship that didn’t survive its maiden voyage is a powerful metaphor for the statelet they eventually established after raising arms against the Crown.

I would like to see the Larne Gun Running commemorated with a Clyde Valley centre.

School groups could learn there that Ulster’s Orangemen were so loyal to the British Crown that they were prepared to raise arms in treasonable action against…the Crown.

Ten years after the Titanic sank the Orange statelet was born.

Just like the doomed cruise liner it was built by bigots for bigots and that should never be forgotten.

The Stormont polity constructed a society that gestated a conflict that would take more lives than perished 100 years ago today.

During that conflict 97% of Loyalists victims were,like Maurice O’Kane, innocent Catholics.

Taking on Republican activists, who might be armed, was not to their liking.

History never ends and it is our duty to remember the past accurately and honestly even if it tells a tale of shame.

Discover Phil’s dramatic play Rebellion