Titanic shipyard to stay afloat

Workers' nine-week sit-in occupation pays off as Harland and Wolff rescued in buyout deal.

    The gates to Harland and Wolff have been locked since early summer, but workers are hoping to return by the end of this week [John Sibley/Reuters]
    The gates to Harland and Wolff have been locked since early summer, but workers are hoping to return by the end of this week [John Sibley/Reuters]

    There was a feeling of vindication among workers at the gates of Harland and Wolff on Tuesday as news broke that a buyer had been found for the troubled Belfast shipyard.

    The historic Northern Ireland shipyard, famed for building the Titanic, has been bought for six million pounds ($7.3m) by InfraStrata, a London-based company that specialises in energy infrastructure projects.

    The workers at the plant who did not take voluntary redundancy when the yard went into administration - 79 in total - will now keep their jobs.

    InfraStrata said it planned to increase the size of the workforce by several hundred over the next five years.

    Chief executive John Wood said: "Harland and Wolff is a landmark asset and its reputation as one of the finest multipurpose fabrication facilities in Europe is testament to its highly skilled team in Belfast."

    Workers have occupied the site since the business went into administration in the summer, undertaking a high-profile campaign to save their jobs.

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    Workers victorious

    It is nine weeks to the day since workers at the historic site announced their Save Our Shipyard occupation.

    They remained on site around the clock through sun, wind and rain, adamant in their belief that the shipyard could be saved.

    As the days and weeks wore on, support for the workers sitting at the gates was shown by a constant sounding of beeps from passing cars, by donations of food and drink, and by people giving up their time to sit with them.

    Former workers at the historic shipyard also turned out to show support, with men in their 90s among those who took the opportunity to leave their handprints in concrete on the site.

    The occupation even became a feature of city sightseeing tours, while east Belfast-born singer Van Morrison was among those who sent messages of solidarity.

    Visitors to the site included shadow chancellor John McDonnell as well as Country Down-based singer Tommy Sands, who performed a song he wrote for the workers.

    Occupation leaders took their campaign from the shipyard gates to the Parliament Buildings in Stormont, where they bonded with Irish language activists - even learning slogans in the tongue - before travelling to speak at the Trade Union Congress conference in Brighton in September.

    When we go back through those gates... we're going to show the world what we're capable of. Be very proud of yourselves

    Steelworker Joe Passmore, addressing fellow workers

    On Tuesday morning, the mood was one of exhausted elation after workers were brought together to hear the news they had been hoping for.

    There were huge smiles as the Save Our Shipyard banner was amended to We Saved Our Shipyard, cheers as the campaign chant was updated as well as hugs for union officials Susan Fitzgerald (Unite) and Denise Walker (GMB), who have been with them throughout.

    Steelworker Joe Passmore, one of the most prominent spokesmen for the workers, said they had been vindicated.

    "We've created our own future, we've always known what the potential of this place is," he told workers.

    "We always knew the skills that we had, and we always knew that given the chance the workforce of this place could make Harland and Wolff great again.

    "So when we go back through those gates, that is exactly what we are going to do, we're going to show the world what we're capable of. Be very proud of yourselves because what we have achieved here is fantastic and I hope the world takes notice."

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    He told the PA news agency that he hopes they will be back to work later this week.

    "There are a lot of exhausted people here at the minute, but we're bouncing on adrenaline because the future we could have here could be brilliant and we're all looking forward to our beds, but we're really looking forward to what we believe could be a really successful future," he said.

    "What we are hoping for is, we'll give everyone a rest and possibly Thursday [to be back at work] but we have got to confirm that yet.

    "There's a few formalities to go through at the minute, but we had a good talk with the workforce in there and they know that the hard work really begins now and we are going to start as we mean to go on."

    Safeguarding employment

    Fitzgerald, Unite's regional coordinating officer, said the occupation was proof that workers could win when they stand together, backed by their trade union.

    "That's the message we want to go out to other workers, particularly the workers in Ballymena [Country Antrim] right now who are dealing with the closure at Wrightbus. We'll be going up this Friday en masse to support them," she said.

    Walker, a senior organiser with the GMB trade union, added: "The victory today is payback for the nine weeks that the workers have sat out here. It's a vindication that they were right, they believed this yard had a future and they weren't prepared to stand by and let anybody come in and asset strip and mothball the yard, and these guys have worked hard to make sure there is a future not just for themselves, but for the skills that they bring for future generations still to come."

    The shipyard, whose famous yellow cranes named Samson and Goliath dominate the east Belfast skyline, employed more than 30,000 people during the city's industrial heyday. But the workforce numbered only around 125 when the company went under.

    The business had diversified away from shipbuilding in the past two decades, shifting to work on wind energy and marine engineering projects.

    Known around the world for building the doomed White Star Line passenger ship Titanic, which sank on her maiden transatlantic voyage in 1912 after striking an iceberg, Harland and Wolff was one of the United Kingdom's key industrial producers during the World War II, supplying almost 150 warships.

    Administrators BDO Northern Ireland confirmed they had entered into heads of terms with InfraStrata with the intent of completing the sale in the near future.

    A spokesman for BDO said: "The agreed terms of sale will include the transfer of the remaining employees on their existing terms and conditions to the purchaser upon completion.

    "In the interim, it is intended that the remaining employees will be able to return to work in the coming days to facilitate the remaining steps required for the completion of a sale.

    "This is a very positive step towards securing a sale of the shipyard and protecting and safeguarding the employment of the workforce."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies