Belfast Telegraph

Harland & Wolff workers fight on, but cranes now looking like the world's biggest tombstones

The last ship fully built in Belfast, the Anvil, in 2003
The last ship fully built in Belfast, the Anvil, in 2003
Eddie Reid, who says Belfast needs the shipyard
Steelworker and GMB union rep Barry Reid
Gary Fleming, who has worked at the yard since 1976
Employees of Harland & Wolff are joined by Labour’s shadow chancellor John McDonnell during their protest at the gates of the shipyard
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

It's 3.30pm and the famous H&W Shipyard is deserted and eerily quiet.

"Away you go, it's all yours," had been the greeting at the gates. No need for health and safety checks, no hard hat. Just the freedom to roam the once bustling shipyard as the clock ticks down towards administration.

Standing there alone in the shadow of the famous yellow cranes you close your eyes and imagine the thousands of workers who have trodden the concrete beneath your feet - 35,000 in its heyday during the Second World War. Just 123 today. None tomorrow.

You imagine the noise of the shipyard during those halcyon days, the clang of metal on metal, rivets driven home, when the company built ships and helped to build a city.

Samson and Goliath have stood as sentries watching over Belfast for half a century, and they will continue to do so as they, at least, will be preserved. But to think they will stand idle and watch silently as a shipyard becomes an industrial graveyard is hard to comprehend.

Unless a buyer is found, or there's a Government intervention, they will be redeployed as monuments to the past. The biggest tombstones in the world.

All is calm. The only sound is the screeching call of seagulls circling overhead, chased toward land by an impending rainstorm. The skies are grey, the heavens open. All remaining employees are holed up in the yard's cafeteria. A last minute plan of action for the days and weeks ahead in which work, sadly, will not be a feature.

Freed from that one final meeting as a paid workforce, where they heard shadow chancellor John McDonnell call again on the Prime Minister to intervene, and Susan Fitzgerald, Unite's regional co-ordinating officer, rally the troops once more, they march out as one and the "save our shipyard" call goes out.

While the call can be heard, the worry is that no one is actually listening with the urgent concern required in desperate times.

Words are all they hear back. Action is what they want.

Back at the gates, the sun is shining again. Typical Northern Ireland weather to see out the final few minutes as almost 160 years of industry are brought to a close.

No last minute saviour, the 5.15pm deadline passes almost unnoticed.

There's no symbolic closing of the gates. The workers are not ready for that finality just yet. Last night there were no tears, just a steely determination that the workers will stay and fight. Most have nowhere else to go.

Shop steward Joe Passmore summed up the mood of the workforce in one word.

"Resolute," he said simply. "We know exactly where we are. The message to Arlene Foster and the DUP has been received at Stormont and we're not going to give up until we can bring shipbuilding back here.

"It's a waiting game now, but we'll be waiting here.

"Some of the workers will have no choice if they have an offer of another job. If they want to take a redundancy tomorrow, that's fine, but we believe most will stay and fight with us. This place has been their lives and they believe it's worth fighting for."

One of those who has given his working life to the shipyard is Barry Reid.

"I've been here 34 years and this is a very sad day," he said.

"But nobody's crying. We have a fighting spirit. Days like this will make us stronger and we're going to dig our heels in. We're going to pressurise our political parties here, on the mainland and if needs be in the south, because there's a lot of work for our industry in southern Ireland. We'll go anywhere to get it.

"Of course there was sadness today, thinking it might be the last time I ever walk around the yard. I'm a fourth generation employee here. I was hoping my son would be the fifth."

Gary Fleming has been walking through the gates since 1976 and says he, like the other employees, is up for the fight ahead.

"I've been coming here for 43 years and I'm not changing that," he said.

"I'll be back here tomorrow and every day after that until we get a buyer. We've got to fight on." Standing alongside him will be Eddie Reid.

"Today we're disappointed but we're still here tomorrow. and the next day and the next day," he said.

Such was the mood everywhere you turned.

"We need politicians to get their fingers out and help the workers. Belfast needs H&W."

All around the shipyard the Titanic Quarter continues to grow, a symbol of a positive business future for Northern Ireland, a shining example of what investment can achieve.

At the heart of it, the industry that put Belfast on the map, that gave its name to the area and helped build the city over the past 150 years and more, is left to stagnate and it's in danger of becoming no more than a treasured memory, fondly recalled in the history books.

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