BELFAST, Northern Ireland. For the rest of the world, the Titanic may be a symbol of epic failure — but not in this formerly great industrial city where she was built. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the famous liner’s sinking later this month, Belfast is marking the occasion with many commemoration ceremonies — and not a little pride.
The Titanic was launched at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyard here on April 2 1912, then went on to Southampton to begin her first and last voyage. Mid-way to New York, she hit an iceberg on the night of April 14 and sank within hours with the loss of more than 1,500 lives. The victims included many of the wealthiest Americans and Britons of the day.
One moral of the story is of overarching hubris: hailed at the time as one of the world’s most remarkable technical achievements, she was widely regarded as unsinkable. Urged on by the owner, the White Star Line, the captain took unwarranted risks in steaming through an iceberg region at twice the recommended speed.
A larger message in Belfast’s commemorations though is an economic one about the crucial economic importance of manufacturing. As the world’s erstwhile largest shipyard, Harland & Wolff once constituted the cornerstone of the prosperity of the entire region of Northern Ireland. Not anymore. Faced with formidable East Asian competition and handicapped by an overvalued pound sterling, it has not built a ship in decades and its workforce is down more than 90 percent from its greatest days of industrial leadership in the 1940s and 1950s (the company has survived only because it has invented itself as a niche player in the renewable energy business). Its virtual demise has sounded the death knell for hundreds of local suppliers making everything from ropes to machine tools. No industry of any scale has arisen to take its place, with the result that the once famously prosperous province has long now ranked as one of the sickest regions of the United Kingdom.
The ramifications for politics on the island of Ireland have been hard to exaggerate. Thanks largely to the shipyard and the industrial jobs it supported, Northern Ireland had long boasted a per-capita income nearly twice that of the mainly agricultural Republic of Ireland. Then came a remarkable turning of the tables in the 1960s through the 1990s. While the shipyard announced wave after wave of layoffs, the Republic assiduously targeted manufacturing and handed out large grants to corporations like Intel and IBM to set up major operations on Irish soil. In due course the Republic soared far ahead of Northern Ireland.
The Republic’s manufacturing strategy came to earn it the soubriquet the Celtic Tiger. Meanwhile the large rates of unemployment consequent on the shipyard’s slow demise greatly exacerbated Catholic-Protestant tensions in Northern Ireland and thus helped prolong the regions “Troubles” (in a segregated region, Harland & Wolff had always been regarded as a Protestant employer and a potent symbol of Protestant ascendancy).
Of course, the banking crisis that began in 2007-2008 has somewhat readjusted the rankings. While Northern Ireland has escaped relatively unscathed, the Republic has been forced to institute a hairshirt program of austerity.
It is an ironic fact, however, that the Republic’s problems arise not from any failure of its original strategy. Quite the contrary, the Republic went off the rails only because it deviated from that strategy to embrace the erstwhile fashionable idea that advanced nations should move on from manufacturing to pursue a new promised land in advanced services. Near the top of the list of services the Republic embraced was international banking.
For a time it seemed to some observers, particularly those who read only the Anglophone press, an inspired move. But there were icebergs ahead — and, as with the Titanic, hubris claimed another victim.
Eamonn Fingleton is the author of In Praise of Hard Industries: Why Manufacturing, Not the Information Economy, Is the Key to Future Prosperity (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999).