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.


Does history have to repeat itself? First thoughts on Declan Kearney’s speech.-

A ‘wise-guy’ once wrote

History repeats itself

It has to

No one is listening.

At a human level we all know how hard it is to break a pattern of relationship, even patterns that are the worst kind with desperate consequences for those involved. To learn to side-step the old emotions and to check intuitive reactions is a challenge indeed. So it is refreshing to hear that there is a way for history not to repeat itself:

We can stop history repeating itself by leading on the priority for an inclusive reconciliation process, in which all sections of our society listen and engage unconditionally with each another, and on the basis of equality and mutual respect.

So spoke Declan Kearney today in Milltown Cemetery as Republicans gathered to remember 1916. History need not repeat itself but there are some movements in relationship that are needed if history is to be set on a different course.

The first movement is listening. How often do we fail at this first movement because we intuitively react to what we are hearing and are hit by the old emotions feeling that our old enemy is justifying themselves? So to help the listening the speaking has to take account of how to communicate with the other. From the beginning this is a two-way process, locking suspicious people together as they begin a new struggle. So the first movement of listening also requires a careful movement of speaking if we are to get beyond the first stage.

The second movement is engagement. Kearney expresses this movement as ‘engage unconditionally’. What precisely does that mean? Almost as soon as the word unconditional comes out of a Republican mouth a Unionist moral backbone has straightened and is worried that this means accepting that some things which should not have been done were tolerable if not acceptable in the context as set out by Republicans in their particular analysis of the conflict. So to be unconditional to the Unionist mind actually becomes a condition and the condition is to accept a Republican analysis. If that is what Kearney means then already the project has failed. I would suggest that there is another way to interpret this.

For those who were engaged in the struggle the particular analysis which was brought to the table and which engaged hearts and minds in a Republican outlook was dependent on there being some justification for the struggle. It was not enough that there was a romantic desire for an Ireland free, although that functions for some. The analysis had to contain elements of belief which urged an Ireland which would be better off economically and socially if it were united, not divided. So it was essential to prove that there was discrimination against the Catholic people in order to paint a picture of a better reality in which Catholics could enjoy the same economic and social benefits as Protestants. Having proven that, the struggle was justified. That internal analysis shored up Republicans as they engaged in violence against their neighbours who have never fully understood how Republicans understood themselves. Unionists have not often been able to accept that the analysis out of which the struggle was born was one that justified the struggle and it was a firm justification in Republican minds. There was no dithering but clear choice by people who had jobs and prospects to join the struggle. It was about freeing your own people and giving them a position through the structures of society which enabled them to access power and then legislate justly. It was an analysis which incorporated a vision for people able to achieve their full potential and be recognised by society. So the ideology was a fair one in the Republican mind and this is what Unionists have not yet fully understood, it seems to me.

So when Kearney asks for people to ‘engage unconditionally’ he is asking for an openness in the approach to dialogue – an openness that accepts there is an analysis which makes it possible to justify the struggle. That doesn’t mean that anyone has to fully embrace the analysis or even partly embrace it. It doesn’t mean that people have to no longer be critical of the analysis but it does mean that when Republicans begin to talk about what they did and why they did it the first response of Unionists is not condemnation but listening and unpacking what is being said in an attempt to get it all out on the table so that it can be viewed from every angle. The listening and engaging may be tight-lipped but the willingness to view the story from every angle is where the critical engagement takes place and that’s why it all needs to be told. Equality and mutual respect are of the same order. Equality is about giving the story equal space to be heard and mutual respect is about a human quality which acknowledges everyones right to choose to be and do what they are and have done. Mutual respect is not, though, it has to be said, about mutually respecting everything that each other did.

Kearney is calling for a new quality of relationship which opens up new space to listen, to speak and then hear. It is on this that he pins the hope that history will not repeat itself. It is this new space that will be a place of transformation where a different and unique kind of history can begin to be written.

It is worth asking what is in this for Unionism. Unionists have important things to say which they feel have never been heard. Those things are related to the injustices of the violence against them and the effects on their community identity and infrastructure. They have to do with covert, disciplined, what are seen as excessive campaigns of purging from border areas and they have to do with not being permitted to speak these out as new institutions were put in place. The Kearney call has to equally apply to Unionists – they have to be listened to in a way which allows them to put it all out on the table without judgement and dismissal being the first response. So how Unionist’s speak in the first movement of the new relating is every bit as important as how Republicans speak and how Republicans listen is every bit as important as how Unionists listen. There is an opportunity for Unionists here and it is one not to missed. What it offers is the possibility of truly opening up the complex dynamics of success and failure, domination and submission. What this offers is a way to continue to be Unionist rather than to be squeezed off the stage altogether and merged with a history long-past which is re-enacted sometimes on a daily basis but nothing more than a re-enactment of that which is past. So this invitation offers Unionism a n unusual opportunity for dynamism within the context of today’s politics.

The task ahead is mammoth, I have no doubt about that. But it is a task that has to be faced if we are to side–step into a new history. So far the past is ever before us and it’s time it was behind us. Here is an offer of an opportunity that should not be refused.

Read more: http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/northern-ireland/calls-for-reconciliation-process-16142033.html#ixzz1rTXQKuOX


Easter comment on life

The Lord is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia!

This morning we remember and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, God’s final and most lasting comment on all that the world offers. The politics was supposed to be over, the threat extinguished, the appeal to the kind of people religious leaders weren’t too keen on having around silenced, the disruption settled into a new calm which would allow religious people to know where it was all at again. No more turning-over of tables in the Temple with an angry shout at those who exploited the poor and ready to believe. No more healing to attract people away from the religious standards set down by Temple leaders. No more crowds being pulled together with the worry of them getting out of control and no more political concern about the man who could muster more support than any other political grouping in those days.

But God wasn’t finished. The final comment had not been made. It was made when some ordinary people went to pay their respects and found the tomb empty. It was made when the disciples who had locked themselves away ran out to check what they were hearing was true. The final comment was made when grave clothes were folded and Jesus spoke to Mary and identified himself to her. The final comment was life and not death. The final comment was a comment made on everything that manipulates, exploits or corrupts for the good of some to the detriment of others. It was a comment for everyone, there is life for everyone and if religious people want to also be Easter people then the comment we have to construct on our world is a comment about life – life for all. It isn’t hard to see the death around us, the dying, the grief, the confusion, the system which permits success and deep-breathing contentment for some but not for others. All around us there are signs of the things Jesus couldn’t tolerate in his life and which God made comment on when God raised Jesus from death to life.

Where I work the comment of life has to be about suicide and loss and the breaking down of life. It has to be about the fracturing of identity and the fractured responses which only shore up a brokenness which may bring some healing to some people but won’t be strategic enough or well-managed enough to make a long-term difference. Across wider society Easter people are challenged to make some stab at leadership when politics cannot hold the diversity it is faced with and when there are attempts to mend fractures, whether those fractures run deep into the past or are newly created.

Easter people have to be with the commentary that is for life, bearing in mind that tables were overturned and people were healed and ordinary people from Galilee and other places too were called to follow the one whom God raised to life.


Mike Nesbitt – the man for the time?

There is no doubt that Ulster Unionism has been struggling to find its place. It hasn’t been alone of course in this new era in which the sharp ends of our politics have found a way to meet in the middle, or somewhere about the middle at least, while those who once sat in the middle ground have found nowhere to rest. So they have become cranky like most of us do when we get overlooked or aren’t appreciated. The UUP and the SDLP put in a considerable amount of steady work over the years, not resorting to violent means but at the same time of course being part of the whole diabolical structure of our sectarian, conflicted society which needed so badly to be transformed. But they rightly have said so many times that they weren’t the worst. So it has been hard for both parties to ‘find themselves’ in a society that was changing and beginning that change by moving away from the good/bad model of society to the ‘we’re all in this together’ model.

Perhaps that is something of a clue for the man who will want to be the man for the time. Mike Nesbitt is a man of big character. He speaks loudly and clearly, he has ideas and he is not afraid of his own authority. So he has the potential to lead with strength and with character and certainly a bit of personality in politics never goes amiss. But he will face many challenges, of which he is very well aware, and as he faces them he has to be careful to restrain his strength of character just enough so as to persuade rather than coerce the party faithful and many more besides who can still find something in Unionism that they haven’t found elsewhere. It is a work of both internal capacity building and of outreach. For the internal capacity building it is a matter of putting together a message that will inspire confidence among the people who will help him to make it work or make his life such a living hell that he will go to the wall. For the outreach work it is a matter of restating unionism in a way which is attractive and hopeful, proactive and concerned but maybe most of all, in my view at least, of being connected with the world beyond its own walls. That for me has been the greatest disappointment of middle unionism – it has not been able to stretch out to include a cross-section of this societies classes, creeds and peoples.

So is Mike the man for our time? If politics isn’t to finally fall into a two party tug-of-war with Alliance in the middle then he needs to be that man. If politics is to open up new fields of debate and community growth and engagement then he needs to be the man.

Clearly Mike comes to this with more than a sense of call from his own party, although he both needs and has that. He comes to this with a sense of call from somewhere much deeper in his soul and from one much greater than any political domain or dynasty. When Mike commented on the Sunday reading on his website and hinted that he would run as party leader he was hinting that for him there was more afoot. It takes courage to answer the call and it will take courage to lead. Rather than pulling him apart before he gets started maybe it is time for us to look to Mike Nesbitt and to our other politicians as the people for our time, given to leadership. We have the right to call them to account but when we overstep that right to become perpetually disappointed and bitter and cynical maybe we have stolen our leaderships vocation from them. So if we change our expectations and our hopes and our way of speaking about our leaders maybe it could be different, maybe we could see more done. In fact, it might transform our political context altogether.