Category: Archive

Editorial: The shipyard sinks

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

It was vessel No. 1742 that marked the end of an economic era for Belfast, which once thrived thanks to the industrial might that the shipyard symbolized. At its peak, it employed 35,000 workers. During World War II, Harland and Wolff was crucial to Britain’s war effort — and survival — against Nazi Germany, launching 140 naval vessels, including six aircraft carriers, and 140 merchantmen. It could turn out a ship every week.
Ironically, the yard is most well known for one of the great disasters of the 20th century. It was in Harland and Wolff that the Titanic was borne, the ocean liner that was hailed as peerless and unsinkable, but that went down on its maiden voyage on April 15, 1912 in the northwest Atlantic after striking an iceberg. More than 1,500 people lost their lives. It was the ship that sank that placed the shipyard firmly in the popular mind of the last century, spawning books and movies.
The shipyard went into a steady decline after the end of World War II, along with the rest of Belfast’s major industries. The rise of shipbuilding in the Far East, the decline of the British Empire, and the oil crisis of the 1970s were rivets driven hard into the Harland and Wolff coffin. The workforce dropped from 35,000 to about 11,000 in the late 1970s. The beginning of the new millennium boded ill for the enterprise. In March 2000, the yard lost its bid to build the Queen Mary 2 to a French company. At that time, it employed only 1,745 workers. They were told that they faced the same fate as the thousands who went before them. By the time Harland and Wolff finished its last vessel, its workforce had been reduced to about 200.
The impact of the yard went far beyond its economic role. It played an important part in the politics of Northern Ireland. The workforce was almost exclusively Protestant, a symbol of the union of self-interest between the Protestant working-class and the Unionist Party, which guaranteed the link with Britain. The few Catholic workers were often menaced there, and occasionally murdered. One of the last killings of the Troubles was the shooting a Catholic worker in the yard by the Ulster Volunteer Force in June 1994. The workers walked off the job in protest.
The weeds will now claim its vast, rusting sheds as a new Belfast springs up around one of the last relics of the old.

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