OPINION: ‘Significant break' in standard procedures

March 13th, 2017 12:00 PM

By Southern Star Team

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Disastrously, a telegraph machine from the 

Lusitaniawas lost in the recovery operation

AN unusual question was asked at a recent meeting of an Oireachtas committee: why did an unsupervised dive on the wreck of the RMS Lusitania take place without an archaeologist present, as was required?

Sinn Féin’s Peadar Tóibín, chairman of the parliamentary committee, said the decision to allow a dive without supervision was a ‘significant break’ in standard procedures, particularly since the Lusitania was one of the most important wrecks off Ireland. Heritage Minister Heather Humphreys had ‘questions to answer,’ he warned.

On May 7th, 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed near the Old Head of Kinsale by a German U-Boat with the loss of 1,201 lives. The location is regarded as a war grave and protected by an Underwater Heritage Order under Ireland’s National Monument Acts.

Adding spice to reports of the unsupervised dive was the fact that the dive involved salvaging a telegraph machine that was believed to hold clues to the sinking. But, disastrously, the telegraph was lost in the recovery operation.

The debacle was another episode in the controversy that has surrounded the Lusitania since an American multi-millionaire purchased the wreck at a time that the State was uninterested in protecting important maritime sites. When Gregg Bemis bought the wreck in 1967, it lay in international waters and, in 1982, he hauled up the ship’s bow, three brass propellers and two bow anchors, as well as thousands of other items such as clocks, spoons (8,000 with the head of General Kitchener) and a complete dinner service bearing the Cunard name.

Cobh Heritage Centre made herculean efforts to purchase one of the propellers but was unable to raise the money and, as was Mr Bemis’ legal right, he sold the propeller to Merseyside Maritime Museum.  Another propeller was purchased by a Saudi businessman and, grotesquely, the third was melted down to make a personalised set of golf clubs for a wealthy American.  

Sotheby’s auctioned the ship’s bell and the ship’s whistle. Not one artefact was handed over to the Irish authorities, nor to any museum.


‘Treasure trove’

Such a ‘treasure trove’ situation no longer prevails and the government department responsible for safeguarding the wreck over the last two decades now strenuously argues that its management of the site has a primary objective: to protect one of the world’s best known ship wrecks.  

In 1987 the International Law of the Sea extended national control of local waters from three to twelve nautical miles. Consequently, because the Lusitania was about 11.5 nautical miles off land the State acquired the right to control all activities in the waters surrounding the shipwreck.  

In 1995, Minister Michael D Higgins, placed a Underwater Heritage Order on the wreck and designated its location as a ‘restricted area.’

Bemis, however, was not pleased and in 2015 – the centenary year of the Lusitania –  he accused the State of consistently blocking his efforts to solve the mystery of what caused  the sinking of the vessel. As the owner of the Lusitania, he claimed to have spent over 40 years trying to find the truth and that the ‘only major impediment’ against success was the Underwater Archaeology Unit (UAU) of the Monuments Department of the Ministry of Arts Culture and Gaeltacht.

The Department took the view that the Lusitania was one of the world’s best-known shipwrecks and that the conditions attached to Mr Bemis’ exploration licence were ‘no more onerous than was absolutely necessary to protect a wreck of global significance.’

But now it seems a case can be made for even better vigilance from the Department! Indeed, Peadar Tóibín is right. The Minister into whose remit exploration of the Lusitania falls certainly has questions to answer.


Silence is golden

The rampant success of Sinn Féin in the Northern elections shocked the ‘southern’ meeja, if the response of the Sunday Independent was an indicator. That outstanding organ of truth, non-bias and journalistic fairness treated the result almost with a sense of embarrassment while emphasising the woes of the SDLP.

Largely ignored too was the Sunday Business Post-Red C opinion poll of the 29th January which estimated party support levels as follows: Fianna Fáil 27%, Fine Gael 24%, Sinn Fein 14%.

The figures drew this comment from the perspicacious Adrian Kavanagh: should such national support trends be replicated in a general election, Fianna Fail would win 56 seats, Fine Gael 45 and Sinn Fein 24. Taking the magic number for government as 80, FF and SF would have 80 seats.

Now, that’s a thought! Particularly for Our Mickey, who as leader of Fianna Fail has promised to have no truck with republicans. Question is, after having bailed out the Blueshirts, pragmatic Soldiers of Destiny are tired of holding their nostrils. 

Some of them claim to see a commonalty of republican interests in a deal with SF. But without Martin, of course!


 Matelots take over

And, listen to this: Although Minister Simon Coveney has promised the denizens of Cork Harbour a €61million transformation of Haulbowline Island into a public amenity with parks, sports fields, walkways and cycle ways, the plan has as much chance of coming to fruition as the survival of a snowball in Hades.   

Haulbowline is the former site of one of the most toxic steel plants in Europe and although the factory has disappeared, its filthy legacy remains.  For example, part of the island, the East Tip, is so heavily contaminated that it was deemed unsuitable for use either as a public amenity or anything else.  

So much for Coveney’s much-lauded aspirations!

However, a report commissioned by the Office of Public Works recommends that the Naval Service should take possession of the 84-acre island in order to expand the naval base and provide more berthing facilities. All entrances to the island by land and by sea should be controlled by the matelots, it says. In other words, vast sums of money are to be pumped into the Naval Service.

The report also stated there was some merit in using the island as a location for maritime research and development in conjunction with the nearby National Maritime College of Ireland.


 Old friends are best

Whoever said that Corkonians hide their talents under a bush was bonkers, if the line-up to the annual dinner of the Cork Chamber of Commerce was anything to go by. At the top table sat the British Ambassador and flunky, the CEO of the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, the CEO of the American Chamber of Commerce Ireland, the American ambassador and the Canadian ambassador.

 Also happily guzzling were prominent Leeside TDs, senators, MEPs, bishops, and a retinue of execs from the multi-nationals. But not an official from the EU or any of the other 26 member countries was present.

Was the Chamber sending a message: that Cork has its own sort of Leeside Brexit?

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