Belfast Telegraph

Harland & Wolff: 'It's about more than my job, it's about what shipyard stands for'

Harland and Wolff workers
Harland and Wolff workers
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

And so the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic is to stay afloat.

The intrepid workforce can now smile at the irony. After nine weeks of a round-the-clock vigil, come rain or shine, the forecast is positive.

Yesterday a sign mounted on Harland and Wolff's front gates which previously read 'Save our shipyard' had been altered to say 'We saved our shipyard'. Past tense, but future perfect.

Paul Beattie (54, right), who has worked in the east Belfast yard for 38 years, said the £6m InfraStrata deal represented a triumph of collective action.

But the fight didn't come cheap to the workers, according to the shipyard veteran and GMB union representative.

He said the average cost of holding the line at the main gates of the under-threat company was, on average, £5,000 per person in lost wages.

"There were 123 of us at the beginning. Although that number fell to 79, we were prepared to do this for as long as it took," explained Mr Beattie, a health and safety manager.

Not everyone could stick it out. Some people were forced to accept jobs elsewhere, including four men who went to Italy for employment, while others, many nearing retirement age, took redundancy.

Hearts were heavy as the long, dark days and nights came and went without certainty.

There was frantic finger-crossing that, eventually, a buyer would be found for the troubled shipyard.

Support for the workers manning the gates was evident from motorists in passing cars, whose constant beeping boosted morale.

The regular donations of food and drink offered up by ardent supporters were equally welcome.

As one worker said: "A wee woman from Dundonald Historical Society comes down every week and gives us £20 for sandwiches."

Yesterday, nine weeks to the day the 'Save our shipyard' occupation was announced, there were big smiles and hugs for union officials Susan Fitzgerald (Unite) and Denise Walker (GMB, first on left), who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with workers throughout.

Father-of-two Peter McConnell (53), from east Belfast, said he was "beyond delighted" that the nine-week campaign had ended in victory - and with the retention of the 79 workers who had stood their ground.

"It was a tough call. I honestly didn't know whether to take redundancy or to stay put and hope for the best," he said.

"Standing around for nine weeks was monotonous enough, but I'm glad I held the faith. We all supported each other. This is brilliant news."

North Belfast man Brian Welsh (55) started out at Harland and Wolff aged 16 and returned as operations manager seven years ago after a period working elsewhere. He had some advice to offer the new owners.

"The future is looking brighter for us now, but this place almost killed itself," he said.

"They didn't provide any apprenticeships, so we weren't bringing in any young people and that's part of the problem.

"There is a huge skillset available among our workers. We need to share the knowledge to continue to grow."

Electrical engineer Robert Childs, a Harland and Wolff employee for 40 years, admitted the occupation was "becoming a bit of a struggle".

"The days have been getting very long for many of us," the Ballygowan man said.

"It would've been a real downer if we hadn't got some good news.

"Up until now we've been very lucky with the weather, but with all this rain it was starting to feel bleak.

"It has been a very stressful time for my family and I was starting to worry, but it's about more than my job - it's about what the shipyard stands for and its future potential."

Meanwhile, retiree Fred Black (63) said he had been coming along to stand at the gates "most days" to show solidarity with his former colleagues.

"It's about the future now, not the past," he said. "People need jobs. They need something to believe in. Today is a good day for Belfast - and for Northern Ireland."

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