24 April 2015
Once again Western media has rushed to judgment over a "Russian submarine", this time in an incident off the coast of Ireland. But maybe they should have done their homework on this one. Britain and the US have worse track records in the Irish Sea.
Last week, while out and about in the waters of the Irish Sea a few miles off County Down, a fishing trawler "almost sunk" when it was hit, presumably by a submarine.
The vessel, named the Karen, was hit and then "pulled backwards very violently.”
Skipper Paul Murphy told Down News that the boat had been travelling at just a couple of knots and then all of a sudden he was nearly knocked off his feet. "The crew were just in shock after this incident. It really was a close call," he said.
Shaken from the day, and no doubt influenced by the deluge of Russian-subs-and-jets-are-coming-to-get-you propaganda in British newspapers, Murphy immediately hypothesized to the journalist that it could have been a Russian submarine. No wonder Stockholm couldn't find it.
After I read the story, I posted the link to Facebook and then promptly forgot about it. It was only by chance, while reading an article in the Guardian about Britain’s Trident nuclear deterrent program and the “unpredictable Putin” that I happened upon another mention of it.
It seems the Russian sub theory has spread beyond the Down News to the Guardian, the BBC and beyond. And don't get me wrong, it's not a theory entirely without merit. It very well could have been a Russian submarine.
Dick James from the Northern Ireland Fish Producers Organisation (NIFPO) told the BBC that the mystery sub may have been observing NATO marine exercises off the coast of Scotland.
Security analyst Tom Ripley, who writes for Jane's Defence magazine, agreed. He told BBC Radio Ulster that the Russians "are famous for liking to watch these things [NATO exercises] and it is a strong possibility that they have sent one of their submarines to watch this activity.”
James added that, had it been a British submarine, Royal Navy protocols would have required it to "immediately surface to check on the health and welfare of the people involved," and this submarine did not do that.
Subsequently, the initial media coverage of the incident seems to have been peppered with the assumption that while the Brits would never be so rude as to not surface and say hello, the horrible Russians wouldn't feel bound by such niceties. It's this fact alone — that the sub never surfaced to check the damage — that seems to have immediately convinced the entire British and Irish media that it could not have been a British vessel.
But let's skip back for a moment, to April 18, 1982.
On that otherwise calm day at sea, a British submarine dragged the Sharelga, an Irish fishing boat for two miles before it eventually sunk and all five crew members were forced to jump overboard. They were, luckily, rescued by crew members of nearby boats.
The British sub did not surface and the British government denied any involvement in or knowledge of what had happened to the Sharelga. Only weeks later did they finally admit that in fact the Irish boat's fishing net had been caught by the British submarine HMS Porpoise, which itself had been trying to spot Soviet submarines in the Irish Sea.
Four years later, the crew members finally received compensation, although according to the skipper Raymond McEvoy, it “didn’t even match half” of what he paid for the boat.
It took so long, likely in part because the Irish government didn’t want to, shall we say, rock the boat by getting too involved in a diplomatic entanglement with Britain. A document released decades later revealed that the Government was not interested in acting as “a party to the dispute” between the men and the British government.
The sinking of the Sharelga happened during a period of the Cold War that saw the Irish Sea earn the nickname 'Submarine Highway', so frequent was sub activity in Irish waters.
Seven years after the Sharelga sank, a Belgian trawler, the Tijl Uilenspiegel, sank approximately 25 miles south-east of the Isle of Man, presumably also by a submarine.
The incident prompted a discussion about submarine activity in the Irish Parliament in March 1989. Hugh Byrne, a member of parliament at the time, used his speaking time to deliver a chronological list of incidents to highlight the dangers to both fishermen and those on recreational vessels.
Here are some of the incidents he listed:
● In 1983, a yacht was struck and sunk by a submarine believed to be the British HMS Opossum, off County Wexford
● In 1984, a fishing vessel, the Algrie, became entangled with the HMS Spartan off the Cornwall coast
● In 1984, a US submarine surfaced in the middle of a fishing fleet near Kilmore Quay, prompting fishermen to flee in fear of their lives
● In 1984, Scottish fishing vessel the Mhari L disappeared with no distress call. A damaged British submarine entered Faslane base 24 hours later, but the Ministry of Defence denied involvement
● In 1987, the Summer Morn was towed for hours by a US submarine
● In 1988, the HMS Oberon collided with a yacht named the Drum
● In 1988, the Dalriada was sunk by the HMS Conqueror off Northern Ireland
● In 1989, a fishing trawler was struck by the USS Will Rogers.
Those are just a handful of incidents involving the damaging, sinking or disappearance of Irish and British boats in the waters surrounding the British Isles. Notably, none of the examples Byrne gave referred specifically to Russian submarines.
Occasionally the tragedies were blamed on “freak” waves, as in the case of the Boy Shaun off County Donegal and the Inspire off the Welsh coast, both of which were sunk while submarines were known to be operating nearby.
Overall, 50 fishermen lost their lives over nine years as a result of war games being played out in the Irish Sea. It’s important to note that the national identities of the subs were not confirmed irrefutably in every case, but a search through Irish government debate archives seems to suggest that Britain was regarded as a major, if not the major culprit. It’s not a particularly unusual assumption either, given that Britain (and its bases) is quite considerably nearer to Ireland than Russia, last time I checked.
During his comments, Byrne said that despite pleading with the British government, they continued to "ignore the loss of life and to respond with a ‘how dare you ask questions?’ attitude".
"The attitude of the British Government, who contribute most to this devastation, baffles me because of their arrogance towards their people, particularly towards their fishermen," he said.
Later in the same year, after a sonar buoy towed by a British submarine became entangled in the nets of a fishing vessel in the Irish Sea, the issue was raised in government again.
Member of the government at the time Peter Barry said that "as long as the NATO base [Holy Loch] remains located in Scotland," and as long as NATO submarines were being shadowed by submarines from other superpowers, the danger would remain.
None of this information is readily available to your average consumer of news today, unless they go searching through old archives, which most people are not wont to do — and so it’s easy for the likes of the BBC, Sky News and the Guardian to bang out article after article about ‘Russian submarines’ with little to no historical context, let alone evidence to back up their assertions.
None of the reports on the latest incident with the Karen off the coast of Down last week made reference to the relevant history of dangerous British sub activity in the Irish Sea. Either the journalists didn’t do their homework or they felt that the frankly questionable British and American track records in the Irish Sea were not worth mentioning. It’s not that they needed to deliver an entire history of events in the interest of balance, but even a line or two would have been enough.
The argument by some against the relevance of this history will be that the 1980s were a different time and that surely if a British submarine inadvertently dragged a fishing boat today, they would immediately surface to check on the crew. It could also be argued however, that unfortunately today isn’t really as different from 1982 as we’d perhaps like to believe when it comes to NATO vs. Russia war games.
Despite a perhaps misplaced presumption of British courteousness, there are still plenty of reasons to assume a British sub would stay hidden after such an incident today, chief among them the fact that it just wouldn’t look good to admit such a mistake — particularly at a time when Russian military irresponsibility and “aggression” is the accepted bogeyman of the day.
Having to admit to almost capsizing a fishing boat in the Irish Sea would not look great given the current British government’s tendency to fear-monger over Russian jets and subs at any given opportunity and to use routine military maneuvers as a NATO rallying cry.
When I asked Dick James of NIFPO about the drop-off in incidents after 1990, he said it was likely due to the protocols being in place and of course the closure of the Holy Loch base after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which reduced submarine activity.
As for the identity of the sub that hit the Karen last week, when I asked if the media had been quick to judge, he accepted that it "could be NATO or not" adding that the British Ministry of Defence was being "reticent". The Royal Navy later issued a statement claiming it was not one of their own.
But the question is: If Britain refused to acknowledge the mistakes of their submarines during periods of heightened tensions before, why would today be any different?
None of this is to assign blame or to claim that it wasn't a Russian sub which dragged the Karen and shook her crew members last week. It very well could have been — but that theory is no more or less likely than the theory that says it was a British one.