Two springtime events in the past 100 years have had a traumatic and lasting effect on Northern Ireland. The first, in April 1912, was the sinking of the Titanic.
The other was the fall of Stormont and the imposition of direct rule in 1972 during the darkest year of the Troubles.
What happened to Stormont held a particular fascination for me as a young journalist in Belfast. The other day, this newspaper’s librarian kindly unearthed an article I wrote exactly 40 years ago entitled ‘The last days of Stormont’.
Soon after I had finished reading it, I was sorting through old books and came across a copy of A Night To Remember — Walter Lord’s 1955 account of the Titanic’s first and last voyage. To my shame, it had lain unread in my possession since it was re-issued in 1976.
The more I read Lord’s account of the disaster, as told by the passengers, many of whom were still alive when he wrote his account, the more I thought of similarities with the fall of Stormont.
The passengers on the Titanic a century ago and the leaders of unionism 40 years ago shared a fatal tendency: they didn’t believe it would ever happen.
Walter Lord writes: “The Titanic was unsinkable ... Everybody said so. When Mrs Albert Caldwell was watching the deck hands at Southampton, she asked one of them ‘Is this ship really unsinkable?’ ‘Yes, lady,’ he answered. ‘God himself could not sink this ship.’”
The fall of Stormont did not shock the world as did the sinking of the Titanic. Yet, for many unionists in Northern Ireland, seeing the power they enjoyed plucked for ever from their grasp has had a far more lasting effect on their lives.
As a journalist covering the steadily worsening climate, I had been in Altnagelvin Hospital on the morning after Bloody Sunday in January 1972, where the dead and injured had been taken and then moved on to Rossville Flats in the Bogside. The scenes of mourning told me this province was on the brink of civil war.
From there, I had gone to see Brian Faulkner, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland, a man I knew well and who would invite me to his country home in Seaforde, to explain his Government’s position.
Faulkner had travelled to Downing Street in the spring of 1972. Like Captain Edward Smith and the passengers on the Titanic 60 years previously, he had no idea what was about to befall him and the Stormont Cabinet.
True, Stormont, had struck an iceberg on Bloody Sunday, but Faulkner — like the Titanic’s captain — believed his ship of state had only been dealt a glancing blow and could continue on course.
“When Brian went to London, he had absolute faith that nothing would be done without full consultation and agreement,” one of his aides told me in April 1972.
However, once inside Downing Street, the penny dropped. Nothing Faulkner could say would persuade Edward Heath that direct rule was not the only option. Northern Ireland would never be the same again.
Complacency was the enemy on the deck of the Titanic. It was also the enemy of the unionist establishment in Northern Ireland 40 years ago. And who is to say that complacency does not remain a danger to this day?
The Titanic’s fate changed people’s perceptions of sea travel. Henceforth, iceberg fields were monitored and wireless operators worked around the clock. Lifeboats were provided for everyone, not just 50% of the passengers on ocean liners.
“The Titanic lowered the curtain on this way of living,” writes Lord. “Overriding everything else, the Titanic marked the end of a general feeling of confidence.
“If this supreme achievement was so terribly fragile, what about everything else? Scores of ministers preached that the Titanic was a heaven-sent lesson to awaken people from their complacency.”
The fall of Stormont has been a harder lesson for the people of Northern Ireland. We know now that we cannot survive without tolerance and respect for one another.
We know now that there were no victors and that everyone had to give something to win the precarious peace we have come to enjoy.
We also know that icebergs still lurk in a few dark corners around this island and we need to be extra-vigilant how we approach and pass them.
We can all take what we wish from the tragedy of the Titanic, but perhaps the greatest lesson that can be learnt is that we should never take anything for granted, whatever our walk of life.