Sunday, December 13, 2009

FV Trident Formal Investigation – financial pressures

The latest news trickling from the FV Trident formal inquiry is rather disquieting. An article in the Times informs us that the relatives of the seven fishermen who lost their lives when the Trident went down in 1974 are now threatened by the government with financial ruin if they continue to press for a correct and unbiased investigation.

Although in 2002 Stephen Byers, then Secretary of State for Transport, promised that the government will honour its obligation to fund the proceedings, and despite the fact that the families have had no say in how the £3 million costs incurred to date have been decided, the government now has the gall to warn the families that they will not be reimbursed for the costs of essential technical assistance, unless they cease their quest for the truth and fall in with the government’s preferred version of events.

Yes, £3 million is a significant amount, but it was the government alone who chose to spend this sum and what to spend it on. The new model-testing performed in Holland, for instance, was not really necessary except to bolster the government’s proposition that it was a big wave rather than poor design that had been responsible for the vessel’s loss (comprehensive model tests had already been carried out in the late seventies, which indicated that poor stability on the Trident could have led to her capsize).
This blatant bullying of the Trident widows shows the level that our government officials will sink to in order to maintain the myth that there is no gain in pursuing justice and to avoid, perhaps, creating a point of reference for other similarly contentious inquiries.

The Times article also mentions that the victims’ families are determined to look further into the possibility that Trident had stability problems, and that the pursuit of this line of inquiry “would involve raising the vessel from the seabed”.
In fact, this is not really the case. In 1975, at the end of the first formal investigation, and 26 years before the wreck of the Trident was discovered, the Court felt confident enough to be able to conclude:
“The Court considers it probable that deficient stability in her design contributed to her foundering.”
Since then, the only new thing that has emerged is the evidence from the underwater survey of the wreck, which appears to attach even more weight to that probability.

Raising the vessel from the seabed may (depending on the state of the wreckage) provide the experts with some additional information that would improve the accuracy of their stability calculations. However, this is uncertain, and it may well be that, at the end of the day, the information already available from the sister vessel (and from the inclining test carried out on the Trident in Middlesbrough) provides the most realistic basis for a suitable assessment of the Trident’s stability.

Anyway, the biggest problem is that the Advocate General has already made it clear that she is determined not to allow an inquiry into the sinking of a vessel focus on the vessel’s design. Now, the stability of the vessel may be assessed one way or the other, but how do you solve that?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The public bath

By definition, a public inquiry is said to be a search for truth regarding the causes of some terrible incident or man-made disaster, conducted in the public interest and in the public view - the results from such investigations being deemed beneficial to our understanding of what went wrong with our actions and what measures need to be taken in future so as to avoid similar mishaps.

In New Labour Britain, however - in this respect as in many others - the theory is very much divorced from the actual fact. Many public inquiries have opened and closed, leaving us not much the wiser, only a lot shorter of public cash.
So what are these inquiries for?

The most recent and prominent example is the ongoing Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances that led to the war in Iraq.
Like the investigations into maritime accidents (in which we have a greater interest), the search for the truth about the Iraq war has been a process in need of several re-iterations [1] - each of them having left the public dissatisfied.

Confronted with the horrid necessity of having to satisfy people’s curiosity and diffuse various social tensions, governments are not inimical to the idea of setting up public inquiries, but, if there is any risk of political humiliation, they make sure that these affairs will not seek out the truth in earnest or learn any lessons from it – except, perhaps, on how to circumvent the facts more effectively next time around.

As it can be said about many other similar undertakings before it, the Chilcot inquiry could have easily not existed [2]. Since many in the political Establishment know only too well what really happened and who is to blame and why, it would have been a lot easier (and cheaper) if the truth had been publicly revealed, without too much ceremony and vacillation, and the appropriate corrective/retributive actions had then been taken as required.

But discovering the truth is not what a public inquiry is about. Is it? A public inquiry, nowadays, is more like a communal bath – a public place of sensual abandonment and ritual lustration - where the interested parties, hiding their nudity from the public behind clouds of steam and odorous suds, soak together in opulent lather, scrubbing each other’s backs. Its purpose is simply to make them appear purer in the end, and leave them more relaxed - and smelling of flowers.

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[1] See the Hutton inquiry and the Butler review

[2] Just as the MV Derbyshire, FV Gaul and FV Trident opened and re-opened formal investigations