Harland and Wolff workers vote to continue occupation of shipyard
The shipyard in Belfast is facing closure after its Norwegian parent company failed to find a buyer.
Workers at a closure-threatened shipyard in Belfast have voted to continue their occupation of the site.
The move comes as administrators are due to formally lodge papers at the High Court in the morning.
Harland and Wolff, one of Northern Ireland’s most historic brands, is facing closure after its trouble-hit Norwegian parent company Dolphin Drilling failed to find a buyer.
Workers have occupied the site since last Monday as part of a high-profile campaign to save the yard, which is due to formally cease trading at 5.15pm on Monday.
The workers emerged from a meeting chanting “Save our Shipyard” before confirming the outcome of the vote.
Steel worker and union representative Joe Passmore said: “The workforce have told us they wish to continue with the occupation of this plant until such times as we find a way to continue shipbuilding and heavy industry in Belfast.”
Mr Passmore said the occupation would continue for “as long as it takes”.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell visited the shipyard site on Monday afternoon.
He claimed Boris Johnson had failed the shipyard workers in his first real test as Prime Minister.
“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.
A delegation of workers also met with DUP leader Arlene Foster and East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson at Stormont.
Speaking afterwards Mr Robinson said: “We share the disappointment that they have that there has not been a resolution and rescue package that we had advocated for and that we had hoped for.”
Unite regional organiser Susan Fitzgerald warned that no administrator will be able to drive on to the shipyard site without the permission of the workers.
“No-one moves on to that site or off that site unless the workforce, who are running that site, agree to it,” she said.
“That’s been very polite and civilised today but Harland and Wolff is now under the control of the workforce there.
“We met with the administrators today, it was civilised in that we listened, we wanted an update, we put the position of the workers to them.
“We gave them an update, they need to update us, but if there is no progress, tomorrow morning, no administrator will drive into that workplace unless the gate is opened by workers, and they will decide who they open the gate to.
“Someone raised the question to me earlier, can they just go in in the middle of the night and put a bolt on it. I wouldn’t.
“That occupation is being run in a very civilised way.
“People are still doing their work, so it’s appropriate to call it a work-in up to today.
“But no-one is going to go in and remove anything of value from that site, no-one is going to go in and take over the running of that site because workers have access and control all areas.”
Ms Fitzgerald said workers put a “range of options” to the administrators when they met.
“We ran through what we feel are viable options to allow some space to open up, the key thing for us is a continuum of employment for our members,” she said.
“We don’t want formal redundancy served tomorrow because that makes the situation more difficult.
“We’ll manage that if it happens but we put a number of very viable options that we discussed with both unions to the administrator so it’s incumbent on the administrator to take those suggestions fully on board and we are hopeful of hearing back from them soon.”
The shipbuilder, whose famous yellow cranes Samson and Goliath dominate the Belfast skyline, employed more than 30,000 people during Belfast’s industrial heyday, but now the workforce only numbers around 125.
It has diversified away from shipbuilding in the last two decades and until recently had primarily worked on wind energy and marine engineering projects.
Famed for building the doomed White Star liner Titanic, which sank on its maiden transatlantic voyage in 1912 after striking an iceberg, Harland and Wolff was one of the UK’s key industrial producers during the Second World War, supplying almost 150 warships.
Workers have called on the Government to step in to rescue the operation, potentially through nationalisation.
But the Government has declined to intervene, insisting the issue is a commercial one.
Officials insist that EU State Aid rules limit the scope to offer financial support through public funds.
Speculation around potential 11th-hour bidders has so far proved unfounded, with no-one tabling an offer to stave off administration.
A Government statement said: “The Secretary of State has made it clear that he will continue to do everything he can to secure the future of this historic site and ensure workers’ interests are protected during this difficult time, and he has agreed that the NIO will play a full part in the city council’s manufacturing forum to examine growth opportunities for the sector in Belfast.”