Letter: Ulster's Titanic

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The Independent Online
THE NORMALLY estimable Robert Fisk writes an interesting article on the symbolism of the Titanic (Comment, 30 march). However he gets one major symbol totally wrong, as did the film.

Titanic was not built by Irishmen, nor is it part of an Irish story. The Titanic was built by Ulstermen, which is what nearly all of them would most vocally have proclaimed. This goes to the heart of what the current, and past, troubles and partition are all about.

The shipyards of Belfast were the heartland of Ulster Unionism; sectarian riots from the mid-nineteenth century on almost invariably centred upon workers from the yards (over 95 per cent Protestant).

Ulster was not only Protestant but industrial (the only such part of Ireland) and from the 1860s, when the shipyards of Belfast were founded, this industry depended upon capital, raw materials, skilled labour and markets that lay in Britain and the Empire. Industry needed the Union to survive and prosper, and nothing came to symbolise the equation of Ulster's prosperity, industry and the Union more than the shipyards.

This industrial identity was the very thing that Irish nationalism railed against. It asserted a rural peasant identity. Irish nationalists attacked industrial Ulster as un-Irish, a second-class Lancashire that corrupted Ireland and undermined the noble peasant spirit. This was a common theme of most ethnic nationalisms, and is well illustrated by de Valera's 1937 constitution and his radio homilies on Irish life.

Thus the Titanic symbolised, to Irish nationalists, all that they were fighting against. It symbolised modernity and Britishness, the key to Belfast shipyard workers' identity. Hence the vehemence of Ulster Unionism's rejection of Irish identity and their assertion of their own separate identity and very real interests.

Thus references to the ship being built by Irishmen stand as a symbol of the muddled thinking on Ulster and why the current talks may well fail. For Sinn Fein continues that nationalist tradition of ignoring real differences; hence also its lack of any economic policy that even begins to address the real world. Irish nationalism has never addressed the different economic base of Ulster, although claiming a jurisdiction over it. Titanic symbolises Ulster's Britishness, that which Irish nationalism would destroy. And this is still a key factor in understanding Northern Ireland.


Centre for the Study of Conflict

University of Ulster