Tonight could be the final time the sun sets on iconic Belfast shipyard Harland & Wolff with remaining workers fearing a Newry company could be waiting in the wings to swoop in after the doors close to take the proud name overseas.
That was the warning last night from trade union Unite, on behalf of the remaining 123 employees who made headlines last week in their last-ditch effort to secure a future for the company.
Unite’s regional coordinating officer Susan Fitzgerald said Secretary of State Julian Smith has advised that there is still an unidentified bidder.
“As administrators prepare to move into Harland and Wolff [on Monday], workers are extremely concerned at speculation that the MJM group, which had been in exclusive negotiations with Harland and Wolff before abruptly pulling out two weeks ago, may to be looking to buy the yard in a post-administration situation,” she said.
She described this possibility as “a cynical move” which could see jobs and workers being lost”.
Ms Fitzgerald told the News Letter that the workers feared Newry-based MJM group – which specialises in cruise ship outfitting – will swoop in after the company goes into administration, possibly at 5.15pm today, MJM having convinced government its post-administration vision for the company is best for all concerned.
The result could be, she feared, that all 123 staff would be out of a job and that MJM would then be free to bring in workers from outside Northern Ireland to carry out any work for Harland & Wolff, or indeed take the work to a location such as Poland.
The News Letter asked MJM group to respond to her concerns but it declined to offer any comment.
Ms Fitzgerald claimed the MJM group withdrew from negotiations two weeks ago “plunging the yard into the current crisis” and has now resurfaced as a potential bidder in a post-administration situation.
“We know that MJM has already outlined its plans to Invest NI and the Department for the Economy – plans in which the workers are surplus to requirements,” she said.
“Decision-makers should be aware that the group’s founder and chairman, Brian McConville, earlier this year threatened to move their manufacturing operations to Poland in the event of Brexit.”
She added that the union fears MJM only “has a short-term interest in the group’s bottom line, rather than a long-term interest in Northern Ireland’s economy and manufacturing base”.
“There is still time for the government to put aside its ideological prejudices and renationalise Harland and Wolff. Given the cost – in terms of lost purchasing power and taxes, as well as expenditure on benefits – of losing Harland and Wolff’s jobs, renationalisation would be a sound commercial decision as well as an investment in Northern Ireland’s future.
“Harland and Wolff workers have the expertise and experience to turn the yard around. Renationalisation would allow them to get on with the job, rather than lose their jobs.”
Ms Fitzgerald was speaking at the family fun day organised by Harland and Wolff workers as a way of thanking all those who have supported them in their fight to save the iconic yard.
The News Letter put all Ms Fitzgerald’s claims to MJM group for a response, but the company said it would not be offering any statement.
Shipbuilding had been a feature of Belfast since the late 18th century, but it was the establishment of Harland and Wolff at the Queen’s Island shipyard in 1861 that saw it really take off.
The manager of Robert Hickson’s small Belfast shipyard on Queen’s Island, Edward Harland had bought the yard in 1858. Gustav Wolff, whose uncle was extremely well connected in the Hamburg merchant community, had previously been employed as a personal assistant by Hickson. Harland quickly made him a partner in the new firm, and Harland and Wolff was officially formed in 1861.
As work began on the three ‘Olympic Class’ liners commissioned by the White Star Line, Harland and Wolff employed 15,000 people. More than 4,000 of them worked on the first two of the leviathans, Olympic and Titanic, producing not only the design, structure and mechanics, but also ornate fixtures and fittings.