Saturday, 14 April 2012

Clinkers, Rivets and Flatcaps: Celebrating Titanic and the Men Who Built Her.

The panicked screams of the dying could be heard long after Titanic broke in two and finally slipped under the icy waters of the North Atlantic. By the time the last voices faded and the inky dark became silence once more, over 1,500 souls had met a terrifying and lonely fate.

The disaster was a human tragedy from start to finish, the consequences made even more poignant by a sequence of poor and hurried decision making from conception to demise.

There were not enough lifeboats, a decision made to ensure more walking space on the First Class promenade. And when disaster struck, many of the lifeboats lowered held only a mere handful of their potential capacity. The bulkheads didn't reach the top decks, leaving room for flooding and over-spilling should breaching occur. Multiple ice warnings were received, and ignored, on the nights leading to the sinking.

The crossing was hurried, precautions devalued. And when the iceberg was finally spotted, the fatal call was made to turn to starboard, in an instant bringing all the other issues to a head. While a head on impact would have crumbled the bow, Titanic would have remained afloat. By trying, and failing to avoid the collision, Titanic's hull was slashed open and she began to sink.

The names of the dead are immortalised, mourned and reverently remembered, while the testimony of the survivors are forever etched in the annals of history.

But 2,000 miles to the east, the disaster had far reaching impact on a forgotten people who never sailed on Titanic, yet are forever entwined with her story. Within its limited scope, this piece aims to bring to light those Belfast shipbuilders who invested their blood, sweat and tears in turning blueprints and dreams into a steel framed reality.

Belfast in the early twentieth century was a city defined by shipbuilding. Of the approximately 250,000 people who lived in and around the capital, a little over 10,000 were employed at the docks, with 3,000 of them employed to build Titanic. It was a laborious project that took three years to complete and at a cost of over $7.5million. She was built largely by hand, with each major component individually constructed and assembled in the muddy banks of Harland and Wolff.

Despite the hard graft and toil, the building of Titanic was an impressive enterprise undertaken with vigour and determination by the largest shipyard in the world. Bram Stoker wrote that Harland and Wolff had ‘omnipresent evidence of genius and forethought; of experience and skill; of organisation complete and triumphant.’

And behind the clink of hammers on metal and the shouting humdrum of the shipyard lay the drive, vision and industrial genius of County Down native Thomas Andrews. Andrews was an able and ambitious young man who felt at ease in the fast paced world of shipbuilding, and by the turn of the century had risen to become an engineering superstar. At the tender age of 34, he had begun to oversee the development of the Titanic, and two years later in 1909 had become her principal architect. But Andrews was not alone at the giddy heights of the Titanic development project, rather working in conjunction with another local man, 1st Viscount William Pirrie, the former Lord Mayor of Belfast and chairman of Harland and Wolff. Pirrie was man of experience and stature, Andrews a visionary and innovator. Together they would develop, implement and launch a legacy that would enter legend.

Despite the ship's mythical heritage, however, there was an intimacy to the Titanic project. Horses and carts trawled colossal lumps of metal through the streets of Belfast where onlookers gazed with amazement and admiration at the physical manifestation of Belfast's industrial might. Statistics may have told the populous of Belfast's strength in the terms of columns and ledgers, but its tangible reality was what made an impression.

The ship's builders lived within striking distance of the docks, many living under the shadows of the monstrous vessels they constructed. They lived by the beckon call of the dock’s hooter, coming and going at the whim of a sharp blast of air for a mere £2 per week. The average labourer worked an average of just under 10 hours each day, often exposed to highly dangerous conditions. The technology may have advanced, but for the men using horses and carts, wooden supports and ropes to build these megaliths of steel, life was frequently in the balance. Eight workers died building Titanic, with a 15 year old boy falling to his death when he slipped on a ladder. He had lived on Templemore Street, just over a mile from the docks.

Titanic and her sister ships towered above everything around. Contemporary photographs show Titanic as she was, the biggest ship of the time, so big that her dry dock was reminiscent of the throne of a god. They were focal points on the south side of the Lagan, and the pride the ships instilled in the city should not be underestimated. Contemporary reports note that when news of her sinking reached the town on April 16, grown men were seen crying in the streets and a mood of sobriety hung over the shipyards. It was as if the collective parent, Belfast, had lost a child and it would be a very long time until the story would be talked about in everyday conversation.

It is, almost to the moment, 100 years since Titanic collided with the iceberg and vanished forever. Such a historical landmark has led Belfast to a seminal point in its relationship with the liner. A sense of full circle prevails, and nowhere can this been seen as prominently as The Titanic Belfast project built on the site of the old shipyards. The respectful and revised statement of learning, remembrance, and architecture that the centre exudes is only part of a countrywide movement to connect Titanic.

As one man from Belfast said to me recently, ‘it is not something to forget.’

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Wednesday, 11 April 2012

The Problems of Centralised Government: The Ill-considered Constraints on Economic Recovery in Northern Ireland

Nobody will argue that the United Kingdom is in choppy financial waters. On March 26, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development charted the cost of Britain's recession at a cumulative output loss of £87 billion, or 6% of GDP.

All very interesting, but what do cold percentages and unqualified numbers mean for the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?  The simple answer is a drop in real wages and a critical lack of jobs.

The unemployment rate in Northern Ireland currently stands at around 7%, taking the number of people claiming unemployment benefit to over 60,700. And while at 7% Northern Ireland is still below the national average of just over 8%, a 2009 survey found that the greatest increase in Job Seeker Allowance came from the 30 mile radius of Magherafelt, Dungannon and Cookstown. The area has a relatively low population base to begin with, but considering that the biggest employer is construction, the downturn in the housing market has been devastating for mid-Ulster.

Northern Ireland finds itself in a difficult situation. To the south it sees the discovery of oil off Cork as well as big business investments across the ROI from Beijing and Washington. Across the water, Scotland rumbles with the politics of independence, while England is occupied with maintaining the Union on the one hand, while ensuring London continues to enjoy its place as a global leader on the other.

The mounting sense of insecurity has left the country in an unenviable position, where the only comfort comes from the promise of external investment or industrious business ideas within. It was with open arms, therefore, that the country received news that over 7,500 jobs were pledged by foreign investors during a three-year period. But it was not without Northern Irish energies, as it was locally-based Invest NI that had stimulated the interest with a tempting chunk of Government-sourced capital.

Invest NI has spent £1.5 billion in the nine years since its inception, promoting an estimated 42,600 new jobs, safeguarding an additional 19,400 positions and securing £5.5 billion worth of investment in the local economy. While this success is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the vast majority of its triumphs recorded between 2008 and 2011, the economic stimulus that Invest NI has afforded to Northern Ireland must not go unnoticed.

Which is why the Government's decision to  limit the reach of an organisation with a proven and growing record of success in stimulating the Northern Irish economy is baffling. From 2013, the country will be prohibited from proceeding as it has, lest Belfast enjoy an unfair advantage over other parts of the UK in seeking investment. Furthermore, Business Secretary, Vince Cable has plans to recall Northern Ireland’s 100 per cent status for regional aid, which will have the effect of restricting Invest NI’s ability to offer financial assistance to all but a handful of economic areas designated as being most deprived. And this is despite intense lobbying by senior members of the Stormont Parliament.

Historically, the success rate enjoyed by Invest NI has been drawn from the ability to extend economic opportunities to companies throughout Northern Ireland, but without the 100 per cent incentive, foreign investment will have to be encouraged by alternative means.

But the nature of British economics is such that if one part of the country succeeds, the rest does by default, and while the stimulus would be more acutely felt in Northern Ireland, the impact is farther reaching. Why then, with the Office for Budget Responsibility predicting the unemployment rate to rise from its current level of 8.4 per cent to 8.7 per cent and public sector net debt to a peak of 76.3 per cent by 2014-15, would Westminster find it a sound judgement to restrict one of its four constituent nations?

The government claims to be simply exercising a policy on the small scale that mirrors one in Brussels; namely that the EU prevents government funds being used in a way that can be deemed to unfairly advantage one country over another. But aside from the irony that the Conservatives are stepping to the beat of Europe, the fact remains that this legislation also allows member states to continue with stimulus if the area in question qualifies the need for support: which Northern Ireland certainly does.

And one way to help achieve this in accordance with EU laws is through the distinctly Conservative notion of enterprise zones. A remnant of the Thatcher era, enterprise zones have been reintroduced across England, Scotland and Wales, bringing with them tax breaks and rate holidays as incentives for business to relocate and existing businesses to thrive. They are successful ventures, as Duncrue Industrial Estate demonstrates on the local level and Canary Wharf on the global scale.

It is arguable that reintroducing the scheme to Northern Ireland would help to cushion the blow of the new restrictions placed on Invest NI should the removal of the 100 per cent regional aid status pass in spite of Stormont's efforts to fight the move.  Enterprise zones would also carry with them the potential to help redress the heretofore lopsided economic balance of the country by helping to stimulate business in the previously mentioned areas west of the Bann, as well as other historically economically deprived areas. With another avenue for the expansion of established companies on the one hand, and fresh growth on the other, the government would lawfully enjoy the fruits of an economic stimulus without betraying the status quo of its ideology.

And then there is the more pressing issue of Corporation Tax. Despite plans to reduce it to 22 per cent by 2014 with an overall medium term aim of 20 per cent, Northern Ireland would still find itself at a considerable disadvantage when placed alongside the generous 12.5 per cent offered in the Republic. To see proof that a low Corporation Tax does generate foreign investment one only need consider that multinationals account for roughly a quarter of Irish GDP. US companies doubled their investment in the Republic in the first half of 2011 on top of fivefold growth in the past ten years, and former US President Bill Clinton has been personally encouraging his fellow countrymen to invest in Ireland due to the competitive tax rates. In principle this writer can understand support for the economic theories of consumer and industry spending, and with greater tax breaks for business comes the opportunity to increase real wages, offer employment and reinvest in the local infrastructure.

Emphasising this point is a report by a new trade union-funded think tank, Nevin Economic Research Institute who in their first Quarterly Economic Observer report recommended an All-Island spending stimulus package by the Republic with 15 billion euro going to the Republic itself and an additional five billion euro being offered to Northern Ireland. They admit it won’t represent a fix-all, but rather claim that it will help the economy to gather momentum in the short-term, leading to a projected long-term boost to the island’s growth capacity. The package is advised over a five year period beginning in 2013, and it is predicted to result in the creation of 262,000 jobs and a rise of 25 billion euro in GDP.

This is arguably one area in which Westminster needs to accelerate devolution of power to Northern Ireland who, in spite of similar demands by Scotland, is the only UK country to share a border - and to some extent resources, consumers and a workforce - with another EU country. If Northern Ireland is to get back on its feet it must be given the tools required to match in real terms its southern neighbour’s competitive Corporation Tax rates in order to stand a chance of garnering its share of interest bestowed on the Republic by powerful foreign investors.

Business Alliance members recently released a statement in which they specifically pinpoint the issue of reducing Corporation Tax as a key issue requiring focus on delivering a positive decision by the summer.

Recovery is certainly possible, and the mechanisms to achieve it are firmly in place. So why does the government feel that curbing growth in the province is the most prudent course of action? Well, to be perfectly honest, your guess is as good as mine.

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