Category: Archive

A View North Another sectarian icon runs aground

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

It is perhaps one of the most famous photographs ever to come out of Belfast. It pictures a swarm of working men in cloth caps and dark overalls streaming toward the camera, a tram behind them and looming over everything in the background, the massive hull of the HMS Titanic straddled by an enormous gantry. The place is Harland and Wolff Shipyards, the year 1911. At the time, Belfast was truly the boom town of the British empire and Harland and Wolff was at the epicenter of that boom. The building of what was then the world’s greatest ship was proof of that.

Eighty-nine years later, at the dawn of the Second Millennium, Harland and Wolff has gone from boom to bust. Last week, its remaining workforce — just under 1,800 strong — was given its layoff notice, to become effective this June. The news came in the wake of the company’s failure to win a $700 million contract to build the Queen Mary II — described as the "world’s most prestigious ocean liner."

The end of an era indeed. For once those jaded words are appropriate. The closure of Harland and Wolff will mean more than just the loss of many jobs. A way of life, perhaps even a whole culture, will be coming to an end. It is rather like the Sioux losing the buffalo.

Not everyone in Belfast is unhappy at the prospect. There were quite a few chuckles coming from West Belfast, in remembrance of the fact that of the 1,745 men who will be affected, only 69 are Catholics. Belfast is not a generous-minded city. It never has been a place abounding in sympathy for the plight of "the other." And Catholics have cause to recall the long tradition which made the name Harland and Wolff synonymous with sectarian employment practices.

The few Catholics that did work there were occasionally held hostage, and during the Troubles in the early 1920s were driven out by their fellow workers. In 1974, it was a protest of shipyard workers which began the Ulster Workers’ Council strike, which brought down the first power-sharing government. During the final days of the last period of the Troubles, one was murdered at his work place. Maurice O’Kane was a welder. On June 9, 1994, the Ulster Volunteer Force shot him in the back as he worked in an oil tanker which was under construction. However, there was some spirit of working-class solidarity. The workers downed tools and walked out. Some even went to O’Kane’s funeral.

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The shipyard was always a potent symbol of Ulster and its loyalist culture. Ulster Unionism would not have been able to dominate Belfast politics without the loyalty of the shipyard workers, who saw their livelihood intimately tied with Ulster’s link to Britain and dependent on the economics of the British empire. It provided Unionism with a working-class base and kept laborite politics from ever fully developing in Northern Ireland, a tragedy in many ways for the Protestant working class from which it has never fully recovered. It meant that the potentially most powerful section of the working class in Ireland was bound to a party dominated by conservative reactionaries.

Harland and Wolff provided the backdrop for one of the most powerful plays ever to have been written about Belfast — Sam Thompson’s "Over the Bridge," which exposed the cynical exploitation of sectarianism and its use in keeping workers divided during a labor dispute. Thompson himself was a painter in the shipyard and wrote out of firsthand experience of the bitter divisions and the usually doomed attempts by labor activists to overcome them. "Over the Bridge" was regarded by the mainstream theater in Belfast as too controversial to produce, and caused a storm when it finally appeared in 1960.

Harland and Wolff cast a long shadow over the city above which its twin cranes, Samson and Goliath, towered for decades. Their massive yellow bulk have become as much a part of the cityscape as did the red brick factory chimneys and the church spires. That skyline has been transformed over recent years as the Victorian industries folded one after another. The chimneys have all but disappeared now, along with their factories. The church spires remain, but they have been overshadowed by bright new glass and concrete edifices such as the Belfast Hilton. The rotund form of the Waterfront concert hall, meanwhile, stands by the River Lagan, a new and unfamiliar part of the modern cityscape, rather like an enormous UFO that has descended on the place.

There is no talk yet of bringing down the Harland and Wolff cranes. In fact, the Northern Ireland Office’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which is responsible for attracting business to Belfast, insists that the failure to win the contract for Queen Mary II is not so fatal to the shipyard as is being reported. Beginning in the 1960s, the yard developed an expertise in building platforms for off-shore drilling and it is hoped that contracts for such work might be found between now and June.

The truth is that Harland and Wolff had changed long ago from what it had been in earlier years. The yard has not built a cruise liner since the late 1950s — the last one, the Canberra, was launched on March 16, 1960. At that time, the yard employed 20,000 workers. Since then, it has specialized in drilling platforms and oil tankers. It lost the bulk of its workforce during the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies devastated many of Britain traditional industries. When bidding for the Queen Mary II, the Belfast yard originally planned to build only the ship’s hull, leaving the other work to a German partner. That fell through when the partner pulled out.

Whatever happens, Harland and Wolff, even if it struggles along for a few more years, like Northern Ireland itself will never be what it was. The trauma will undoubtedly affect Ulster Protestants at a profoundly symbolic as well as economic level. It comes within months of the British government announcing that the Royal Ulster Constabulary will be reformed and renamed, marking the beginning of the end of another crucial part of the Ulster Protestant identity.

How these changes will affect the mood of the North’s Protestants this coming summer could prove to be an important factor as the marching season once more bears down upon the fragile political process.

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