April 13, 2012 / 4:13 PM / 7 years ago

Belfast salvages Titanic as symbol of revival

BELFAST (Reuters) - For much of the century since the Titanic sank, the story of the doomed liner has been a taboo subject in Belfast, an unwelcome reminder of industrial failure and bitter sectarian division in the city that built her.

A general view of the dock in East Belfast where the Titanic was built. January 17, 2012. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Now Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government, buoyed by 14 years of peace, aims to salvage the liner as a symbol of one-time industrial might, hoping the Hollywood glamour around its story can create an icon for a new, united city.

Cast as a monument to the 1998 deal that ended three decades of violence, a 97-million pound ($155 million) Titanic museum was opened by Catholic and Protestant leaders last month to mark the centenary of the ship’s launch and fateful first voyage.

The museum’s 38-meter-tall glass-and-aluminum facade redraws a skyline long dominated by the yellow cranes of Harland and Wolff, the Protestant-dominated shipyard that built the Titanic and the scene of some of the worst sectarian rioting before 1920 partition and beyond.

“For too long, perhaps more than anything because of a sense of profound sorrow, the Titanic has never been truly remembered at home, but all that has now changed,” said Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

“These buildings... are being used to write a new history, to write a better history,” he said.

McGuinness himself, long despised by Protestant shipyard workers for his role as a commander in the Irish Republican Army paramilitary group in the 1970s, recently discovered that one of his relatives had helped build the Titanic.


The period around the launching of the ship was one of the most turbulent in Irish history as Protestant industrialists led a campaign to prevent the government of Ireland being moved from London to Dublin.

The struggle led to sectarian bloodshed in Belfast and a civil war in the south and helped pave the way for the carving out of a Protestant-majority northeast, which remained part of Britain, a decade later.

Hundreds of Catholics were expelled from the yards during sectarian riots in the months that followed Titanic’s launch.

For Protestants the liner, the largest floating vessel at the time, was supposed to symbolize Northern Ireland’s industrial prowess.

But instead of a triumphant arrival in New York, the news that came was of catastrophic failure as the ship sank on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912, with a fraction of the lifeboats required, killing 1,500 of the 2,200 people on board.

The sinking dealt a huge blow to the prestige of the shipyard and the North’s industrial legacy. Fearing what the bad publicity could mean for the province and the shipyard, generations swept the story under the carpet.


“There was such a shock that everyone just clammed up about it,” said Susie Millar, the great granddaughter of a Harland and Wolff engineer killed when the liner sank.

“When I was at school it was never mentioned. It was ‘don’t mention the ‘T’-word’. It was taboo.”

The shipyard declined rapidly in the 1980s and 90s as British heavy industry lost out to lower cost competition from Asia - its workforce is just hundreds today from 30,000 at its peak - and memories of the ship’s sinking stayed deep.

The success of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster film and the security promised by the 1998 peace deal raised the possibility of a lucrative tourist industry and kindled the overwhelming desire by most in the province to return to normality.

“Northern Ireland desperately needs to make cash. I think that supersedes any idea that it was a Protestant project, a Protestant ship,” said Millar, who has built a business around the Titanic, offering customized tours.

The shipyard, which has given up shipbuilding for servicing ships and marine infrastructure, is steering clear of the fireworks, concerts and banquets marking the anniversary; its only involvement is sponsoring the composing of a requiem mass.

But books and films testify to the ship’s use of state-of-the-art technologies and highlight the hundreds of other successful ships built at the yard. The city steadfastly maintains the ship’s design was not at fault in its sinking.

“She was fine when she left here,” is the slogan emblazoned across t-shirts and mugs on sale across the city.

“Any other vessel afloat would have went down in a much shorter time” on hitting an iceberg, said David McVeigh, a spokesman for Harland and Wolff. “It was built as well as man knew how at that time.”


When Londonderry was named 2013 British city of culture in 2010, Irish nationalists opposed to Northern Ireland’s position in Britain responded with several bomb attacks.

By contrast, any opposition to the Titanic project has been muted. But that does not mean the revival is universally loved in Belfast.

“It’s an attempt to airbrush history,” said Brian Feeney, a columnist with the Irish News, newspaper of the city’s Catholic Irish nationalist minority.

“Nationalist Belfast has no connection with the Titanic.”

In the 1960s, only 400 of Harland and Wolff’s 10,000 workers were Catholic and Protestant shipyard workers were a mainstay of mass rallies that helped to raise tensions in the city.

More than of 3,600 people were killed in the next 30 years of violence between Catholic Irish nationalists, who wanted a united Ireland, and predominantly Protestant Loyalists who wanted the province to remain British.

“Most people have just kept quiet because they are aware of the attempt to create a new Belfast, attract visitors, tourists and all the rest of it,” Feeney said.

In recent years the government has taken to using the Titanic as a glamorous and relatively neutral topic to build bridges in divided communities.

On the Lower Newtownards Road, the working class streets of dockland workers which became a centre of violence, murals of paramilitaries have been replaced in government-sponsored schemes with images glorifying Titanic and its designers.

In a church where hundreds in 1912 pledged to fight the “calamity” of rule from Dublin, Catholic children were recently invited to paint posters of the Titanic’s builders.

Slideshow (6 Images)

“This would not have been possible even 10 years ago,” said Dan Gordon, a writer from the area who has written plays about the Titanic and the shipyard that chart the hardships suffered by Protestant workers and explore its legacy on the city.

“What has made Titanic acceptable is time... it’s about time healing,” he said. “That is what is happening with the so-called Troubles.”

($1 = 0.6269 British pounds)

Additional reporting by Matt Cowan; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

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