Shipyard workers ‘digging in’ as push for renationalisation continues

Harland and Wolff workers continue their protest at the Belfast shipyard
Harland and Wolff workers continue their protest at the Belfast shipyard
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Shipyard workers in Belfast are refusing to give up hope of a rescue package, despite Harland & Wolff officially entering administration today.

The remaining 125 workers have been occupying the site in an effort to stave off the yard’s permanent closure.

Trade union officials and workers held a conference call with NI Secretary Julian Smith on Tuesday and the minister has pledged to consider their request for government intervention.

Michael Mulholland of the GMB union said the ideal situation would be if the government took control to ensure the company’s immediate future – but stressed that any renationalisation would be a temporary measure.

“It is for as short a period of time as possible, until a secure future is put in place, under new ownership or whatever,” he said.

“The secretary of state basically reinforced the government’s position, that it would not be their preferred option to renationalise the shipyard, but he also listened to our discussion around potential work streams that are not that much out of reach for the yard should financial stability be put in place.

“He said he wasn’t aware of some of the detail we were able to give him, so he is away back to his department to ask them to investigate it further and he is going to come back to us.

“We have remained optimistic throughout ... and the employees are adamant that they want to fight as much as they can for their futures,” the union official added.

In a statement a spokesman for administrators BDO Northern Ireland said: “Founded in 1861, the Belfast-based company has in recent years specialised in wind energy and marine engineering projects. After a long sales process, in which a buyer could not be found, the business has been unable to continue trading due to having insufficient funds following the recent insolvency of its ultimate parent.”

Unite union regional organiser Susan Fitzgerald said the workers are “digging in”.

She said: “We raised points that the workforce are here, they are digging in, this is a viable operation, there are contracts out there waiting to be won, work waiting to come in and on the basis of an intervention from this government, that work could start straight away.

“We made it clear to the secretary of state that the government needs to intervene now... and that it would cost more money to close it than it would to save it.”

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said the first announcements in relation to new MoD contracts, that could potentially create work at H&W, won’t be made until October.

“I hope we don’t need to contemplate an east Belfast without a shipyard at this stage. There are interested bidders, who have a vision for the yard and are involved in the maritime industry, but the administrator is going to have to work through the contacts ... to work out the potential for securing that future,” he said.

On Monday evening, a government spokesman said Mr Smith “has made it clear that he will continue to do everything he can to secure the future of this historic site and ensure workers’ interests are protected during this difficult time”.

The shipbuilder, whose famous yellow cranes Samson and Goliath dominate the Belfast skyline, employed more than 30,000 people during the city’s industrial heyday, but now the workforce only numbers around 125.

It has diversified away from shipbuilding in the past two decades and until recently had primarily worked on wind energy and marine engineering projects.

Famed for building the doomed White Star liner Titanic, which sank on its maiden transatlantic voyage in 1912 after striking an iceberg, Harland and Wolff was one of the UK’s key industrial producers during the Second World War, supplying almost 150 warships.