Belfast Telegraph

Administrators seek ways to save H&W after calls to protect it from 'vultures'

A shipyard worker surveys one of the empty sheds at Harland & Wolff yesterday
A shipyard worker surveys one of the empty sheds at Harland & Wolff yesterday
Margaret Canning

By Margaret Canning

A trade union has said workers at historic Belfast shipyard Harland & Wolff have been able to secure their employment contracts "for the time being".

Staff are continuing a sit-in which began last week, as administrators were appointed to the business by the High Court.

Trade unions GMB and Unite have said that nationalisation is the best option for the shipyard, which has run out of money after financial difficulties at its parent company.

Dolphin Drilling had put the yard on the market in December though it failed to attract any viable offers.

Insolvency experts Brian Murphy and Michael Jennings from business advisory firm BDO are now running the business.

And it's understood that the majority of the 123 staff have been able to opt for temporary lay-offs, a move which maintains their employment contracts. However, some have already opted for redundancy - and the position of the other staff is being subject to daily review.

East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson said he hoped a deal could be done which would preserve the jobs.

"What we don't want - the workers, ourselves in the DUP, unions or the community - is any situation where there might be asset-stripping by anyone circling vulture-like around the yard."

Trade unions yesterday met the administrators, and later held a conference call with Secretary of State Julian Smith. Michael Mulholland, organiser at trade union GMB, said the meeting with administrators had been amicable.

"The administrators' meeting wasn't an aggressive meeting. It was positive as we have been able to secure the contracts of employment but that's going to be on a daily review basis.

"The administrator also requires a number of people to carry out key functions until they can secure a buyer. Names of individuals have been contacted and asked to continue in their roles. They have offered access to redundancy for anyone who wishes to take it but are content to provide continuity of employment for the time being.

"The Secretary of State also listened to what we had to say but he said he was still of a mind that renationalisation would not be the best option.

"We pushed him on what he believed might be best option but he couldn't give us an indication of what that might be."

The administration does not mean that the business has been mothballed or closed. Instead, the administrators are expected to find out if there's any chance of other work being carried out, or of a buyer being found for the business or some of its assets.

BDO was first engaged by Harland & Wolff in December to see if a buyer could be found - and is now expected to go back to any interested parties to see if a deal can be salvaged.

A spokesman for BDO said: "After a long sales process, in which a buyer could not be found, the business has been unable to continue trading due to having insufficient funds following the recent insolvency of its ultimate parent.

"The team at BDO have engaged immediately with H&W employees and other stakeholders to take all necessary steps to ensure they are supported throughout the administration."

Harold Miller, the Church of Ireland Bishop of Down and Dromore, said the administration was a "troubling development for the people of east Belfast and Northern Ireland as a whole".

"Harland and Wolff has played a central and iconic role in the province's economy to date, and has shown innovation and resilience by adapting its business to the growth in renewable energy.

"The company has had an important role in passing on skills learned and built up over decades to a younger generation, which should not be lost.

"I encourage all in leadership to do everything in their power to secure the future of the company and for government to seek out new opportunities on behalf of its employees and their families," the bishop said.

And Ulster Unionist East Belfast MLA Andy Allen said he had written to the Northern Ireland Office and other bodies to suggest a taskforce could be set up to protect the future of the site for manufacturing and employment purposes.

Mr Allen said: "The news that Harland & Wolff has officially entered administration demands an immediate reaction from the authorities.

"I have therefore written to the Secretary of State, Belfast Harbour Commission, Invest NI, the Department for the Economy and Belfast City Council requesting they work collectively to form a taskforce to ensure that the land on which Harland & Wolff sits continues to be used for future manufacturing and employment."

"We cannot afford to see this site plundered for the development of multi-storey apartments.

"We should be setting a marker down that we will do everything possible to expand our manufacturing base, and that includes Harland & Wolff, and the site on which it sits," Mr Allen added.

And Sir Reg Empey, who was industry and employment minister when Harland & Wolff last secured orders for ships, said: "What we now need is a 'can do' attitude from both politicians and Government. Hand wringing won't do.

"The taskforce Andy Allen is calling for could be followed by the creation of a development corporation, similar to Laganside, which could secure the future development of the site for manufacturing and prevent a plunder of future employment opportunities."

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