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GETTING AWAY WITH BLOODY MURDER
It took some old duffer in the House of Lords last week to bring back to mind one of the great crimes of recent years – the deaths of more than nine hundred people when the roll-on roll-off car ferry Estonia went down in the Baltic at the beginning of October.
Eamonn McCann, 02 Nov 1994
It took some old duffer in the House of Lords last week to bring back to mind one of the great crimes of recent years – the deaths of more than nine hundred people when the roll-on roll-off car ferry Estonia went down in the Baltic at the beginning of October. The ermine-fringed aristos were told that the official enquiry into the disaster won’t report until well into 1995.
The most likely reason for the long delay is that the shipping companies want interest in the catastrophe to subside before the facts are acknowledged – if ever they are. In the meantime, the most important truth, which we don’t need an enquiry to dredge to the surface, isn’t officially acknowledged at all.
The key fact was obvious even as the waters folded over the screams of the doomed. The Estonia passengers were murdered.
The ship sank with dramatic suddenness when water flooded through the car deck, through the bow doors. This happened because the Estonia had been built to standard “ro-ro” design, the car-deck open, not divided by bulkheads. so the huge water which swept in swilled from side to side, exaggerating the roll of the ship until it keeled over.
Everyone in the shipping industry was aware that this could happen. They’d been told, over and over again.
As trade and the travel industry expanded in the ’60s, the number of ro-ros sailing the seas steadily increased. In 1970 Swedish maritime engineers issued the first warning that these were coffin-ships. The industry paid no heed.
In 1976 the French Merchant Marine Society pointed again, explicitly, to the grave dangers of the design. In 1980, British naval architects added their voice. In 1981 Norwegian naval architects expressed their concern. And then, in 1982, the European Gateway went down in minutes when water poured into the car-deck following a collision which smashed its bow doors open. It happened in shallow water with relatively few people on board and only three lives were lost.
At the enquiry into the sinking of the European Gateway, QC Nicholas Phillips said: “If an identical casualty were to happen to a ferry with a full complement of holiday makers it is idle to pretend that any crew would be able to prevent heavy loss of life.” But the death ships sailed on.
In 1987 the Herald Of Free Enterprise sank in four minutes after it sailed from Zeebrugge with its bow doors open, allowing water to surge onto the car-deck. The ship came to rest on a sandbank, half its bulk above water. One hundred and ninety-three people died.
The New Scientist magazine observed: “The next time there could be more than 1,000 passengers on board, and no sandbank.” The next time arrived when the Estonia went under. It wasn’t just predictable, it had been widely and authoritatively predicted.
There’s no mystery about how to make ro-ro’s safer. All the experts have pointed out that watertight bulkheads segmenting the car-decks would prevent water sloshing from one side to the other, destabilising the ship. There was no real need of experts to tell us this. Anybody who thought about the matter for a moment could have worked it out. The reason nothing was done is that ensuring the safety of passengers might have meant lower profits. There was no other reason.
Bulkheads would reduce the number of vehicles each ro-ro could carry, and would increase turn-around time. And time is money in the travel trade.
The other obvious safety measure, putting car-deck doors at the stern rather than the bow so that the ship wouldn’t engorge water so quickly, would also cost time: ferries would have to turn around as they approached port so as to dock stern-first.
Passenger safety would have pushed costs up, and with ro-ro’s competing with other forms of shipping as well as with air travel, that was unacceptable to owners. As the Financial Times put it: “The crux of the problem is not technical but economic.”
Capitalism killed the Estonia passengers.
In 1982 Margaret Thatcher’s government commandeered a number of ro-ro ferries to transport men and materials to the Falklands for war. Shipyards worked through the nights to install watertight bulkheads in the car-decks. After the war the bulkheads were ripped out before the ships resumed a civilian role.
Says it all.
F F F F F F
I see Marty Whelan has gone mad. He had the eejit Peter Rookey – the “healing priest” who was on a publicity tour around the country recently for another book by Heather Parsons, dispensing cures for which there is no known disease – on his 12-2-1 show on RTE and afterwards gasped that “I have to say I’m convinced there’s something about him, because what happened was so difficult to explain.”
And what was it that was so difficult to explain?
“Everything was fine during the interview,” continued Whelan, “but when he turned to the camera to give his blessing, the screens blanked out all over Dublin.”
For fuck’s sake, Marty, would you ever catch yourself on. Since when did screens blanking out become “so difficult to explain”?
My car broke down once at Aughnacloy. I definitely found it difficult to explain. But then a mechanic came along and not only explained it – “transmission fault” – but cured it.
Remember that magic phrase, Marty: transmission fault.
And that reminds me. Even if the screens going blank was down to Rookey, that’s not fixing things, that’s causing a fault. So has Rookey got it the wrong way round?
And that reminds me of another thing. One of Rookey’s best-attended gigs was at Kilnacrott Abbey, Cavan, the Irish base of the Norbertine Order of which the foul paedophile Brendan Smyth is a member and where I believe he hid out for a time while on the run from the vice squad. Obviously they know a lot at Kilnacrott about the laying on of hands.
NO FLOWERS FOR THE BISHOP
Times change, and not always for the worse. A new Catholic bishop has been appointed to the diocese of Derry but this time, I think, we won’t have petal-strewers.
Seamus Hegarty, currently bishop of Raphoe (Donegal), is set to take over from Eddie Daly whose consecration in the early seventies was an affair of great ceremony and mighty pageant. The new bishop was carried in procession – and with, I should say, a certain saving appearance of embarrassment – through the Bogside under a fringed canopy, glittering with gold, and held aloft by a solemn squad of prominent Catholic laymen clad in the gowns of some esoteric order. Behind the mitred bishop bestowing blessings on the awed crowds lining the pavements came contingents of white-surpliced priests, hymn-singing members of various confraternities, flocks of nuns and babbles of children.
And, before, the bishop, came a dozen or so shiny-faced schoolchildren each carrying an urn from which they scattered reverential fistfuls of rose petals at his feet. Those chosen for this prized role were identified by name in the local press as “the petal-strewers”.
It’s as good a mark of the changing times as any that if they tried that stunt today, the petals might be blown away in gales of laughter.
But there are other aspects of Hegarty’s appointment which aren’t funny at all.
It is now widely acknowledged that the palsied reactionary in the Vatican has systematically been slotting into dioceses, in Ireland and elsewhere, men of his own mind, and that he is particularly intent on ensuring that key posts go to the most reliably retrogressive. In this connection, Derry is a significant appointment, the fourth biggest diocese in Ireland with 200,000 nominal Catholics, and with a particular political importance.
It is with this in mind that we should look at the selection of Hegarty brought in from a rural area to take “control” of the biggest single concentration of urban, working-class Catholics in the still-turbulent North.
It is not accidental that Donegal was one of only two counties which voted No, No, No in last year’s referenda on abortion, information and travel. No other bishop gave such open and unequivocal support to the fundamentalist crazies, out to deny women knowledge and the right to travel. Hegarty emerged deservedly as one of the super-heroes of the Youth Defence crowd.
He cannot, of course, be held responsible for all that happen in Donegal with regard to women’s rights, sexuality and fertility. But he has certainly been important in the formation of the ideological climate in the county whereby, for example, a woman who enquired in Letterkenny Regional Hospital about sterilisation following a desperately difficult sixth pregnancy was visited in the maternity ward by a consultant who handed her an insulting lecture and a prayer book. I have no reason to believe this was an isolated incident.
A few years back I got to know a Donegal girl who had been repeatedly raped by a group of local men and who, when 13, had become pregnant and, at 14, had given birth. I am honoured that she has become my good friend. We talk now and then. On the surface at least she has survived the horror to which she was subjected with a most remarkable resilience. This was no thanks to the Catholic Church in Donegal.
Although the case was the talk of her home area long before it came to court – and the courts treated her disgracefully, too: no representative of the Catholic Church ever darkened her door to offer sympathy or comfort, or prayer. This was at a time when public discussion of abortion and related issues was, in Donegal anyway, at a pitch of frenzy, with daily statements from councillors, priests and campaigning groups dominating the news, and no “pro-life” pronouncement complete without a ritual protestation of compassion for rape victims and other women with unwanted pregnancies.
But there seemingly wasn’t an ounce of compassion available for my young friend who during that period was trembling with pain and on the very edge of suicide.
No reference to these appalling events, which surely had implications for the moral life of the Catholic community in the diocese, was ever made from a pulpit. The animals who savaged the youngster were able to attend mass without fear of embarrassment, while she for a time hid herself away, out of a misplaced sense of shame.
Again, we cannot directly blame Hegarty for this. But he certainly knew of the case. And while he was never short of subject matter for public statements on sexual morality, he sang dumb about her suffering and, by implication at least, sanctioned the furtive silence of his priests.
Hegarty’s willingness to associate himself with fundamentalist groups on the far-Right fringe of Catholicism was made publicly plain two years ago when he led a “pilgrimage” from the Raphoe diocese to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hertzegovnia where six fraudsters have claimed to meet and talk with the “Virgin Mary” at twenty to seven, local time, every evening.
The “visionaries” have been denounced as phony by the local bishop of Mostar, Pavao Zanic, who has repeatedly pleaded with his fellow bishops to try to dissuade Catholics from travelling to Medjugorje or giving the “apparitions” credence.
Dr. Zanic has also spelled out the political motivation of the Franciscan priests at Medjugorje, who have a long history of involvement in the fascist Ustashe movement, and acted as chaplains to the Ustashe death squads which murdered hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Jews during World War Two.
Dr. Zanic’s pleas fell on deaf ears in Donegal. Hegarty placed himself at the head of a procession through Medjugorje which included as grisly a selection of Irish “pro-lifers” as has ever assembled anywhere with nefarious intent. The chief warlock of the Medjugorje conspiracy, the aptly-named Fr. Slavko Barbaric, thinks him a great man.
No doubt, they’d carpet the processional route through Medjugorje for him with flowers. But not along Rossville Street, not any more.
Dark and all as the scene sometimes looks, there’s been progress up here.