Belfast Telegraph

H&W workers want more time after four viable buyers express interest

GMB Branch Secretary Bob Gunn
GMB Branch Secretary Bob Gunn
Former shipyard worker Charlie Simmons
Barry Reid, employee and shop steward
GMB Regional Organiser Michael Mulholland
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

Harland & Wolff workers have said interest from four potential buyers could provide a lifeline to save the business, but only if they're given time to secure a deal.

At a public meeting in east Belfast organised by the NI Labour Party, union leaders and shipyard workers said they had not given up hope.

The GMB trade union has been in talks with the administrators of Harland & Wolff, hoping to extend a temporary lay-off of staff beyond Friday.

GMB regional organiser Michael Mulholland claimed four out of five expressions of interest were viable, with one interested party given a tour of the shipyard yesterday,

"It's a lifeline. From a trade union point of view, we've been asking for breathing room to allow a viable bidder to take the site on as a going concern, and to retain the jobs," he said.

"Our solicitors are talking to the administrator's solicitors to get some terms of reference for that.

"The morale is still very high down at the site because of the public support we've been getting.

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"Boris Johnson did a whistlestop tour of Northern Ireland and he wouldn't engage with us. We do understand though from conversations with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that there are conversations taking place in Downing Street but what they are about - a rescue package or anything like that - we're not too sure."

Also addressing the meeting was Barry Reid, a steel worker at Harland & Wolff and GMB shop steward.

"Nobody wanted to be in this situation. I'm the fourth generation of my family working in Harland & Wolff," he said.

"A gentleman told me, 'I bought my house, my two daughters went to university and I'm sitting there with a new car because of Harland & Wolff'.

"We do hope that we get a buyer and the Government supports them."

Chairing the meeting was Bob Gunn, GMB branch secretary.

"The hope level has been raised a bit, the guys seem to think there's some potential there," he said.

"It's very positive. Within a 48 hour period this whole crisis seemed to come from nowhere and became a major issue.

"One of my concerns is that our new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has being going around throwing money around like confetti.

"He made a statement that the Royal Navy fleet needed to be restocked. At the same time they're talking about making people redundant at other yards.

"We need something until these contracts can come through."

Showing his support for the shipyard workers was Charlie Simmons (81), a former welder at Harland & Wolff for 46 years.

"I'm hoping there's good news for the young ones, that they get an order and the politicians get off their backsides," he said.

"I think it's ridiculous the way things have been handled here, we've been let down badly by it.

"I reared my family on the shipyard, back when there was 20,000 workers, so I hope there is a solution for them and for the sake of Belfast."

Sam Gibson is the policy officer for the NI Labour Party.

"I think this is a tremendous testimony to the struggle the workers have put up to hang in there and get an extension of the administration period," he said.

"We hear of at least four credible buyers who seem to be thinking along the same lines as the workers as to how the business would go forward.

"That's very tentative from what I can work out and we can't yet be certain.

"Getting the extension is exceedingly important, but if nothing comes from that the only way we can see forward is if the Government intervenes."

He continued: "Many of the Labour party senior figures have made statements in support of renationalising the yard.

"This happened for British Steel and for Scotland in terms of Ferguson Marine where the Scottish Government intervened and supported that yard.

"That would see the yard through this period of difficulty and hopefully be able to let them find orders in the longer run."

His party colleague and chairman, Erskine Holmes, noted the shipyard land was owned by the Harbour Commission which has four representatives from Belfast City Council.

"My understanding is this land is covered by five or six different leases," he said. "There will be terms and conditions on those leases that makes sure that nothing can happen in terms of developing on site without the permission of the Harbour Commissioners.

"That means the Harbour Commission, and the councillors, will be partners in whatever deal is done - be that an extension of public ownership or bringing in a suitable engineering-based industrial developer. We need to remember the dry dock is still a unique feature and very valuable."

Belfast Telegraph

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