By Anne Cadwallader
BELFAST — Harland & Wolff shipyard in East Belfast, long a symbol of Protestant economic hegemony, could close with the loss of 1,745 jobs after a £400 million order from Cunard was awarded to a rival French shipbuilder.
The news came as a body blow to the already ebbing self-confidence of the loyalist workforce, who have for generations regarded themselves as the labor elite of Belfast, with fears the yard may share the same fate as its most famous vessel — the Titanic.
H&W management has accused the British government of not offering enough aid to help it secure the contract to build the Queen Mary II superliner, which will now be constructed at the French Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard.
Harland and Wolff’s order book will be empty by June, and staff have already received 90-day layoff notices. The company’s Norwegian chief executive, Brynjulv Mugaas, said, however, that it would continue "to pursue every opportunity vigorously."
"We did everything we could," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said. "We are looking at what other help and assistance we can give, but we did everything we legitimately could. Obviously, we are disappointed at the decision, though it is a decision by a commercial company."
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The British government stands in the dock, accused by Harland’s management of failing to prop up the ailing company with public investment. But figures do not bear this out.
In the ten years to 1987, London spent £350 million to keep the yard going. It then gave the company £400 million to clear its debts prior to privatization in 1989.
Since privatization, the British treasury has paid another £250 million to keep H&W’s 1,500 workers in salaries. This means the yard has been given £1 billion over the last 23 years.
This vast amount, many argue would have created many thousands more jobs if it had been spread around newer, high-tech, industries and the many small self-help community enterprise units starved of investment.
One senior academic economist, who didn’t wish to be named, said successive governments had failed to grasp the nettle.
"They have feather-bedded Harland and Wolff for political reasons for over 20 years, not wanting to face unionist wrath if they dealt with the company as they would have done with others facing similar problems," he said.
The Northern Ireland Economic Council concluded in a major 1988 review of the shipbuilding industry: "With the onset of the world shipbuilding recession in the mid-1970s, and the persistent inability of Harland and Wolff to obtain new orders at satisfactory prices, substantial government financial support has been provided to the company over a period of years".
This week, Harland and Wolff asked the British government for — and were granted — a £40 million grant and a £400 million loan, the maximum allowable under EU rules. It still wasn’t enough for Cunard, which had doubts about the yard’s expertise in the required areas.
Few Catholics employed
Many unemployed people in West Belfast regard Harland and Wolff as little more than an extended leisure center. Among the city’s nationalists the term "shipyard job" is synonymous with anything slapdash or inferior.
What’s more, the most recent figures available show that only 5.7 percent of the shipyard’s workforce is Catholic. Of the 1,279 workers in the group’s largest section, Harland and Wolff Shipbuilding and Heavy Industries Ltd., only 69 are Catholic.
There are also political reasons why sympathy for the redundant workers runs low, high among them being the workforce’s undoubted role in the Ulster Workers’ Council strike that brought down the 1974 power-sharing Executive.
There was also a march through Belfast city center in the early 1970s demanding internment and persistent speculation that illegal armaments were made over the years both at Harland and Wolff and at the nearby Shorts missile factory.
Until fair-employment legislation was imposed from London, the factory was bedecked in union flags. Large Orange arches were erected there annually in the weeks leading up to the July 12th marches.
Catholic workers would traditionally be stripped, beaten and thrown into the River Lagan off the docks at Queen’s Island by the predominantly Protestant workforce in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
The phrase "Belfast confetti" was coined to described the rain of red-hot rivets that would traditionally be thrown at them as they swam to safety.