Belfast Telegraph

Cautious optimism that news will help save jobs and restore pride

An image of a Type 31e frigate. The Royal Navy wants five built as part of the £1.25bn contract
An image of a Type 31e frigate. The Royal Navy wants five built as part of the £1.25bn contract
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

Around the social clubs of east Belfast, all sitting in the shadow of the famous Harland & Wolff cranes, it's not hard to find someone with a long time attachment to the shipyard.

Yesterday they were digesting the news of a potential role for the shipyard in a £1.25bn contract along with their lunches.

A consortium, led by engineering firm Babcock -which includes Harland & Wolff - will be named preferred bidder for the supply of five Type 31e frigates to the Royal Navy.

And while the news was welcomed as a positive sign, there remained a fear of past broken promises, false dawns, a shipyard declining beyond repair, and owners who valued the land more than the business.

In the H&W Welders club on Dee Street, a popular gathering point for a workforce without any work, David Thompson sat with friends.

Seven weeks ago he would have been across the Sydenham bypass working in the yard.

"The workers are still there, still standing together and hoping to get back in through those gates," he said.

"Our mood hasn't changed over there. We're resolute and we're going nowhere.

"It's frustrating. There was work there for us last month had we been able to do it, but at least now there is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.

"I started serving my time in 1978, left in 2009, but went back 2011 and had a good six or seven years - but the past seven weeks, with no money coming in, it's been pretty hard.

"But we're still there and we'll stick at it, and news we hear today tells us all we're doing the right thing and fighting for the shipyard.

"It's looking a lot better than it was four or five weeks ago and by the end of the month we hope to have some more concrete news on what the immediate future holds for us."

Now retired, Drew Kane served as a shop steward at the shipyard for 20 years. After redundancy he started working as a taxi driver, but said he hopes the news of the contract will be the stepping stone to pride being restored to east Belfast.

"It was a horrible, dirty, hard place to work. I had more than 30 long winters in there, but it gave the workers pride when they saw a ship launched," he said.

"There's no work around here. We need jobs and we need shipyard jobs. If something comes of this it will be welcomed by everyone. We want that feeling of pride to return. There is a bit of hope now, but I was there when we had hope before.

"The owners previously never had a focus on building ships and putting investment into the business. The interest was in developing the land and the yard was being run down over the years," he added.

"I got the impression they were making sure a ship could never be built again. It'll be nice to see any sort of work going on."

Roy Redmond, another former shipyard worker, added: "There are always concerns as we've seen people pull the plug on contracts before. We had promises of this contract and that contract, but all of a sudden these contracts never materialised.

"Hopefully for the workers this contract will come through, and hopefully they is still a working yard long enough for the work to kick in.

"Those two cranes can lift anything, they have the biggest dry docks, they need supported. The expertise is there and it would be a shame to see it lost. In the long-term you'd hope being involved in a major contract will lead to new apprenticeships and more jobs as east Belfast needs that kind of boost."

Around the corner, off the Newtownards Road, you could find George Smith and his son, also George, from Sydenham enjoying a quiet drink at the Westbourne social club.

"My father was a shipyard worker. He was born in 1912 and spent a lot of his years there," said George Snr. "If work would start coming in to that shipyard again it would be fantastic."

George Jnr said he hopes news of the contract will spur a buyer into action.

"A famous shipyard like that, you'd think someone would be interested in it. It's known around the world," he said.

"Any positive news is always welcome given what has happened over these past couple of months."

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