Belfast Telegraph

Ex-H&W boss calls on Government to intervene and save renowned business

Alison Millar and Susan Fitzgerald
Alison Millar and Susan Fitzgerald
Harland & Wolff workers emerge from a meeting yesterday chanting ‘save our shipyard’
Shipyard workers attend a union meeting
Sir John Parker
Secretary of State Julian Smith
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

Former Harland & Wolff boss Sir John Parker - one of the UK's most respected businessmen - has called for the Government to step in and save the shipyard after it went into administration.

The decision by directors to call in insolvency experts puts 123 jobs at risk and signals the end of more than a century and a half of Ulster's industrial prowess.

Accountants at business advisory firm BDO will now assess the company, which has run out of money after a failed process to attract a buyer. Workers will not be paid from today.

Unions will be holding a conference call with Secretary of State Julian Smith today.

Assets like its cranes, real estate and dry dock could yet be sold during administration - a result which would raise money to pay creditors. But a deal which would preserve the jobs of all the staff, some of whom have worked for the company for 40 years, looks less likely.

Sir John, the chief executive and chairman of Harland & Wolff from 1983 to 1993, said he was "deeply saddened" by the administration.

"It's a disappointment given all the years we fought to keep it alive and thriving - for all the people who over the years have made a success of it and kept it alive, when so many yards around Europe have died," he said.

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"I feel for all the people who have relied on it for their living."

And he said he believed the Government should support the yard, which was sold to its most recent owners, Fred Olsen Energy, in 1989.

"When a business reaches this stage, then quite clearly I would have thought Government and potential investors in the private sector might get together and find a formula that can enable it to continue."

He said he hoped the assets of the shipyard - if they were to be sold following administration - should be used to create employment.

"If it's now in the hands of administrators, quite clearly they will have their own ideas on how to maximise its value. But I think administrators, Government and potential investors should be getting together to try to create a plan to utilise those assets in the best interests of employment."

Last night the Northern Ireland Office said the Secretary of State was "concerned to see the position of Harland & Wolff, and he understands the impact such uncertainty has on employees and their families".

However, there had been no "viable" funding options found.

"He is speaking to partners across Whitehall and in Northern Ireland, including the Department for the Economy and Invest NI, on the next steps to help those affected," the NIO said.

But Unite union officer Susan Fitzgerald said that the "hands-off approach adopted to date by the Tory Government and their supporters in the DUP amounts to economic vandalism".

"During our conference call with the Secretary of State tomorrow, we will be stressing that, if Harland and Wolff is allowed to close, the taxpayer will pick up the bill in terms of lost taxes and benefit costs, while Northern Ireland's economy will lose vital skills and expertise as we head into the uncertain waters of Brexit."

There is a deficit of around £32m in the company's pension fund but it should be protected under the Government Pension Protection Fund following administration.

Workers at the plant were served with redundancy notices yesterday morning.

Staff have been staging a protest at the company gates since Monday to call for nationalisation of the business. They voted yesterday to continue their occupation of the site.

BDO staff are expected to go to the High Court this morning to have their appointment confirmed in court.

After the company was put on the market, talks took place with companies interested in taking over the business.

At least one company - Newry's MJM Group - walked away from a potential deal. But it's believed such early bidders may yet return to buy over parts of the business, such as its brand name and property.

However, MJM Group could not be reached for comment on any plans it might have.

Yesterday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell visited the shipyard site.

"We know this is a viable concern, we know the Government has naval contracts it can put here to ensure the long-term future," he said.

"We know there are contracts out there but it just needs support from the Government.

"I am saying to Boris Johnson very specifically he can't stand on the sidelines."

Fielding questions from workers, Mr McDonnell was asked whether the Government would fall if the DUP withdrew from the confidence-and-supply deal over the issue. Workers broke out in a round of applause when a union official suggested that if the DUP did not make the ultimatum to the Government, then workforce representatives would stand against them in future elections.

Belfast Telegraph