Titanic, inquiries and a better future

Inquiries in Northern Ireland are undoubtedly a bone of contention. Time and again they are held up as among the greatest shortcomings in a societies attempts to access information about the atrocities and outrages of the past. While those who have been deeply hurt and damaged by what has happened, by the experiences of loss, discrimination and suffering, would often like to access that information the singular most significant route to the help they need most often fails them. Line upon line of written script is blacked out as if their feelings were blacked out from the consciousness of society and hurt is heaped upon hurt. Inquiries fail us over and over again.

Yet there is enough wisdom around for us to know that what the inquiry system restrains from public knowledge has a purpose and a reason. The interconnectedness of information, the exposure of security methods, the protection of some who are vulnerable – it can all be understood. But even with understanding there is a silent inward nodding that the system is not good enough and it continues to fail the construction not only of the past but also of a good foundation for the future. If we cannot do better in setting down a firm foundation then the future will inevitably remain precarious.

Inquiries have shown their shortcomings over and over again. I had never thought to wonder if there was an inquiry following the Titanic tragedy but it is all there to be explored from our far-distant time. http://www.titanicinquiry.org/ The guilt that drove people during the inquiry, the bitterness and the anger and the despair. The sense of loss and the reality of loss. The pure human shortcoming. It is all there in the script of the inquiry given from different perspectives – British & US. Minute by minute is accounted for from the noon departure of the White Star Line’s flagship on April 10th through to Frederick Fleet’s sight of something in the distance from the Crow’s Nest on April 14th at 11.40pm. It only took two hours and forty minutes for the Titanic to disappear into the stony cold water taking 1500 lives. A long list of witnesses was called at both the American and British Inquiries. The Americans spent 18 days at it and recommended that inspection laws needed to  be revised and standards set so that no vessel could be licensed to carry passengers until those standards were met, including vessels from foreign countries. Amendments to the standards would include emphasis on sufficient lifeboats for everyone. Training and drill in use of the lifeboats was also crucial together with passengers and crew being assigned a lifeboat even before they left port. Searchlights, communications, distress signals too were at issue along with the construction of vessels. In his speech to the Senate at the end of the Inquiry Senator William Alden Smith said:

Our course was simple and plain – to gather the facts relating to this disaster while they were still vivid realities. Questions of diverse citizenship gave way to the universal desire for the simple truth. It was of paramount importance that we should act quickly to avoid jurisdictional confusion and organized opposition at home or abroad.

He points out the importance of the inquiry taking place close to the event. In our context across Ireland today we are far from many of the events which need to be inquired into. That makes it difficult but not impossible and especially not impossible if we consider more carefully what we want to achieve. But out situation and Smith’s clarity also beg the question about political will regarding the past. One wonders if we sit long enough with a flawed and failing system will the day dawn when someone will start to say it was all too long ago, we have to let it go.

Smith spoke about Captain Smith of the Titanic. He,

..knew the sea and his clear eye and steady hand had often guided his ship through dangerous paths. For 40 years storms sought in vain to vex him or menace his craft. But once before in all his honorable career was his pride humbled or his vessel maimed. Each new advancing type of ship built by his company was handed over to him as a reward for faithful services and as an evidence of confidence in his skill. 

Then he levels the devastating rebuke.

Titanic though she was, his indifference to danger was one of the direct and contributing causes of this unnecessary tragedy, while his own willingness to die was the expiating evidence of his fitness to live. Those of us who knew him well – not in anger, but in sorrow – file one specific charge against him: Overconfidence and neglect to heed the oft-repeated warnings of his friends.

The extent of Smith’s guilt was well discussed and herein lies a warning – that the guilt can be pinned to one to allow others off the hook and satisfy a thirst for something to be done. Any inquiry has the capacity to rush to conclusion when someone, or something, or some group or system can be made to carry the blame for the shortcomings of many. Such a result does not build a firm foundation for the future.

The British Inquiry lasted 36 days and made a clear and short statement of finding:

The Court, having carefully inquired into the circumstances of the above mentioned shipping casualty, finds, for the reasons appearing in the annex hereto, that the loss of the said ship was due to collision with an iceberg, brought about by the excessive speed at which the ship was being navigated.

The annex to the report contains many more pieces of description and account but the brief and final finding does little to alleviate the suffering of those who survived or those who lost loved ones. Recommendations were made about how ships could be more watertight, about lifeboats, training and drills.

In both inquiries testimony revealed the shortcomings in human nature, the desire of many to survive, the old class biases which suggested that some should have stayed and others should have boarded the lifeboats. The tendency to find someone on whom blame can be pinned is evident too. Somehow we imagine that if there is another who is ‘responsible’ then we will feel better. The bitter truth is that while one may feel better for a short time it doesn’t last because ultimately nothing can make the situation well again, nothing can bring back a loved one or take away the memory of the experience that haunts and wakens in the night. Things cannot be put back the way they used to be.

So when we search for and cry out for inquiries what are we looking for? Is this the place to begin? Would it not be better to begin with what we want to achieve and then to construct something that would take us there? Otherwise we have no learning from a world of experience. There is much at stake, too much for things to be left to drift or for  information to slip out under courtroom doors. The future is at stake. The question is whether we are committed as a society and whether we can call out the political will to intentionally construct something that will bring us to a better place. I’m looking forward to the BBC drama and to further questions being raised in my mind and to what it will impart about human nature.


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