Page last updated at 12:02 GMT, Friday, 3 April 2009 13:02 UK

Tragedy blows issues to the side

By John Knox
Political reporter, BBC Scotland

Hearse after accident
The bodies of eight men have been brought back to Aberdeen

Parliaments are always at their best when they are dealing with triumph or disaster.

The helicopter crash in the North Sea this week was a perfect example.

The nation needed a place to mourn, a place to put on record the dreadful thing that has happened.

MSPs sat silent during a special session of first minister's question time to hear Alex Salmond say the words they all felt: "The whole nation will want to join me in expressing our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families, their friends, their colleagues and the loved ones of those who have been so tragically killed in this appalling incident."

The first minister went on to give a detailed account of the accident, so far as is known, and to promise a full investigation.

'Some comfort'

He said a public inquiry would be considered after the immediate findings of the Air Accident Investigation Branch are published.

He praised the search and rescue services, saying: "Our respect for these people should be absolute."

He told MSPs he'd been to the search and rescue centre in Aberdeen on that dreadful Wednesday night and seen how desperately disappointed the staff were that all 16 men on board the Super Puma helicopter had perished, especially after the text-book rescue of 18 people on board the other Super Puma which had ditched in the North Sea just six weeks before.

He said the accidents were very different.

The capsized Super Puma helicopter which ditched in February
All 18 people on board the Super Puma survived after it ditched in February

The earlier one had almost certainly been caused by dense fog as the aircraft was coming in to the oil platform while Wednesday's had occurred in good weather and was due to a "catastrophic" event in mid-flight.

Labour leader Iain Gray said we often forget about the risks oil workers take everyday.

"We often debate the oil and gas industry in this chamber," he said.

"We argue over its future, its price, who owns it, who should own it, how it should be taxed and how that tax revenue should be spent. We even argue over the extent it should be replaced by cleaner or less finite sources of energy.

"Meanwhile, we expect the tens of thousands who work in the North Sea to continue to deliver oil and gas, day in and day out."

Annabel Goldie, for the Conservatives, said the community of the north east, where eight of the 16 lived, would be devastated by this tragedy.

"We hope that this parliament's witness of their grief at this very sad time will bring some comfort," she added.

The Liberal Democrat leader Tavish Scott said oil workers now need reassurance about the safety of North Sea helicopters.

He said: "The investigators need to act swiftly. If the UK Government need to ground Super Pumas, they should."

The Queen joins G20 leaders for a photocall at Buckingham Palace
The Queen posed with leaders from the G20 summit for the traditional photo

A similar session on the tragedy was going on in the Westminster parliament at about the same time on Thursday.

And the same assurances were being given by the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, that lessons would be learned quickly.

Also in London, of course, the G20 leaders were announcing a new world order on the economic front.

But talk of a trillion dollar rescue package, of curbs on the banks and tax havens, all seemed too distant in the face of the immediate tragedy in our own North Sea.

The normal concerns of parliament also paled into insignificance.

Yet they are important too, only less shocking.

MSPs debated NHS waiting times. They heard of progress in forming the new arts agency Creative Scotland. They were given a detailed account of how the Nationwide acquired large parts of the collapsed Dunfermline Building Society.

With this end of term, comes my end of term. I'm moving on to pastures new
John Knox

They considered how building projects like new schools and the Forth Road Bridge should be funded. They debated anti-social behaviour. They appointed a new standards commissioner, Stuart Allan.

In this last week before the Easter recess, we even forgot the rows this term over the budget, over local income tax, over an independence referendum and over the Scottish Government's reaction to the recession. Huge issues, blown to one side by tragedy and human loss.

But then parliaments are supposed to reflect the thoughts of the people as they are buffeted by the winds of accidents and circumstances.

I've been lucky to have reported this place for the past 10 years. But with this end of term, comes my end of term. I'm moving on to pastures new.

I leave, though, with utter respect for the politicians here at Holyrood, even though my weekly chronicles have teased them at times.

Last project

They do a fine job in trying to govern well and face up to the problems Scotland still has to conquer.

I am doing one last project for the BBC.

This weekend I set out on a 1,200-mile cycle journey through Scotland, from Gretna Green to John O'Groats, with my sound recorder, to prepare three radio programmes about the 10th anniversary of devolution.

They will be broadcast at the end of May.

And meanwhile, you can follow my travels on this website.

Parliament resumes on 21 April.

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