The Malta Independent 26 May 2024, Sunday
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Ireland: A Model to Follow

Simon Mercieca Monday, 5 January 2015, 11:53 Last update: about 10 years ago

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to be one of the guest speakers at a Maritime Conference organized by the School of History at University College Cork. To my surprise, one of the speakers invited was the Irish Minister, Simon Coveney.

When I read his portfolio, I was not impressed. It was the first time that I saw a ministerial portfolio linking defence matters to marine, agriculture and food but I was in for a big surprise. The minister delivered a good speech: different from the usual speeches one hears from ministers at opening ceremonies. Infact, his speech was not delivered at the beginning, but was given during one of the sessions:he spoke with great passion about maritime matters. Ireland is following the British tradition by including defence with maritime affairs and linking it to the fact that both countries have an island identity.Their primary defence factor is the sea rather than lands forces.

Ireland is working so that in the next few years she will inject a new spirit to its port cities and small islands. Cork is destined to become a major hub of attraction. I am sure that the government or more exactly, the Marine Minister, Simon Coveney, will succeed. First and foremost, he is passionate about the subject. This is an important ingredient for political success. Secondly and more importantly, he is building on the right premises; i.e. historical research. Thus, taking advantage of local history, he is developing the future of Ireland's ports cities on projects that are incorporating history. The historical elements for Cork have been identified, starting from the Irish diaspora. Millions of Irish started their journey to the New World from Cork. Some of the migrants did not make it to America. Then, there are other stories, which have been identified with regards to this city, or Queenstown, as it was known during English rule that are now of an international stature. Perhaps, the most famous story is that of the Titanic. The Titanic was launched in Southampton but its last port of call, was Cork. It was here that this ship was last photographed in harbour. It was from Cork that her last passengers embarked.

There are other stories, which Cork will be cashing in on. The story of the Lusitania hit the international news in 1915. The Lusitania was a passenger ship torpedoed by German submarines a few miles away from the port of Cork. It is a story full of innuendos, some of which were extensively discussed during this conference by the Irish historian John Borgonovo and the leading English expert on the Royal Navy, Eric Grove. Despite the fact that German U-boat activity was very low at the time, as there were only a few German submarines in the Atlantic, this incident was destined to bring America into the First World War on the side of Britain. The balance of power was thus tilted in favour of Britain, in this war between relatives (the heads of state fighting in this war were relatives, all grand children of Queen Victoria!).

The idea is to rediscover the lost dynamics of the past between land and sea and it is through such research that one can start changing derelict areas into thriving localities.

What a difference from Malta where our maritime sector is today a non-entity in our political discussion! Despite the fact that Malta built its fortune on its geographical positionin the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, the country now lacks a serious maritime vision. Our military defence is entirely based on our land forces. The marine sector is just a joke. Why should we not start changing direction? Most of the work done by our military men, in terms of local defence, can easily be done by the police. Where is our maritime vision?

The same holds for our maritime cities. These too have an important history.A maritime vision signifies that, for the first time, Malta can start addressing the real problems that are hitting our harbour cities - the population decline. The Grand Harbour was, in the past, the gateway to Malta.

The infrastructure of our harbours is still that of the 1880s. This is normal with port cities. Cork too has an infrastructure that dates back to the 1920s. The difference is that Ireland is working to upgrade its infrastructure. In our case, we perceive our harbour cities in terms of festivities, fireworks (I have nothing against them) but without any holistic vision. Throughout our recent history, we have always first created grand projects and then started to upgrade our infrastructure, if at all.

It is about time that Malta starts undertaking research projects to revive its historic cities. While professional works have been done and are being done for Valletta and Birgu, there are other localities, which still lack attention. Their history needs to be retold. Bormla, in particular, needs a tailor made masterplan, as the needs here are different from Birgu,Senglea or Valletta. Instead, the only plan available for this locality is the creation of a big car park to serve the needs of Birgu, and this car park is going to be built next to that part of the town which survived, with all its historical glory, the torments of the World War II. Whoever planned this car park and supermarket shows total lack of concrete vision, serious research and a civic consciousness. Definitely, the government is not charting a new course but merely regurgitating old concepts and failed visions that have been circulating for the past twenty-five years or so.

Our harbour cities are a fascinating gem. The only person who really appreciated and sought to do something significant was Ugo Mifsud Bonnici. He realised that the cities have their own historic identity. It is time for the historians to begin researching their history. Various local historians and history graduates have worked on various historical aspects of these localities, yet as a country we are still far from making useof this researchto improve matters.

The last budget spoke about private-public partnerships. But is this what is really needed? The risk here is that for the sake of profit - or short-term visions - we are risking to continue endangering our environment. This was the problem with the past Nationalist administration. Abroad, the partnership is now being undertaken by the government with the communities of towns and villages and not with so-called budding entrepreneurs who have privileged access to the corridors of power. This is what we really need here in Malta. In Ireland,projects are being driven by volunteers, showing enthusiasm for their local history and artefacts. I think that this should be the direction that our government should start implementing.

Reinforcing our maritime history means that we restructure our economy and commercial patterns and not just rely on yachts and marinas. More important, in establishing partnerships with the communities, government would be diversifying our cultural product and would resuscitate those historical elements that have built our Maltese nation.



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