Belfast Telegraph

'It has validated what we already knew - that the work is out there'

H&W stalwart hopeful Belfast operation will benefit from new contract for vessels

Joe Passmore
Joe Passmore
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

For seven weeks Joe Passmore has been the leading figure as workers at the Harland & Wolff shipyard man the gates at the under-threat company.

He has led the round-the-clock vigil, been involved in negotiations with unions and administrators and been the frontman to the media - the rock the continued campaign to save the shipyard has developed around.

Having worked at the east Belfast yard for over 30 years, he is the one the workforce turns to for encouragement, advice and stability. He also is refusing to get carried away despite the welcome news of a Royal Navy contract in the pipeline.

The announcement that a £1.25bn contract is heading towards to a consortium which the Belfast shipyard is part of didn't come as a bolt from the blue.

The workers at the gates, said Joe, were expecting it and they see the contract as vindication of their stance that there is work out there.

Shipyard veteran and Unite union representative Joe said that while the potential work, which would not kick in until 2020, will not save the shipyard on its own, it has lifted the spirits of the workforce.

"It has validated what we always knew - that the work we said was out there is out there. And this is just the tip of the iceberg," he said.

"I'm not saying spirits were going down, but you do need boosts along the road. This has lifted spirits, there's no doubt about that.

"The naval contract is an indicator of where the whole of British shipbuilding can expand, and we will be a big part of that future. The workers are excited that there is a future."

But Joe did have a word of warning for those who might think this has saved the shipyard overnight.

"We have to remember this is something down the line. It could be the end of 2020 before the work arrives," he said.

"In the meantime, there's a target at the end of the road, a road we can fill with what we're good at and that's green energy projects.

"We've been involved with them for years and built the prototypes for wave generators and structures for wind farms. We've been at the forefront of that for the last 10 or 12 years and the people who come in to run the company will realise that and realise the potential and where we can go.

"Ideally, the best thing that could happen is that the Government realises that.

"With the green energy programmes they claim to be world leaders in, there are major projects on the horizon.

"This place is ideal for attracting that kind of work.

"If you build the prototype of something, you become the expert.

"Unfortunately, the previous administration didn't give us the chance to follow that up, but we know we can do it and that's essentially why we're holding out.

"Other people may say that the shipyard is finished, but it was never finished.

"Wouldn't it be so perfect for the Government to step in now and ensure these facilities are still here and able to form part of their plans?"

For now, said Joe, the workers must sit back and trust the administrators to find the right buyer.

"We've had meetings again this morning and have a very good relationship with them," he added.

"There was a bit of patting each other on the back that we've managed to get to this stage by helping each other. It's another step in the right direction.

"We know this is down the line, so we need to fill the order book until then. That's not going to be as difficult as people think because of our credentials.

"The administrators are working really hard on our behalf and trying to find us the appropriate buyer. We know they're talking to various people. We have to trust them, and we do.

"We're a little impatient of course, but we're prepared to wait. That's how business works.

"Where the patience wears thin is that we've been doing this for six weeks now and no-one has been paid.

"It is getting really difficult to sustain, but there's a hardcore workforce.

"We will stay here to ensure shipbuilding will always continue in Belfast.

"Going six weeks unpaid, the resolve people have shown has been absolutely amazing and the support we have been getting knocks us over every day.

"That support is from everywhere and it's been appreciated so much by all of us still standing out here in the rain today.

"This is not just about our jobs, it's about the thousands of jobs we affect and the temporary workers we bring in when we've got a project.

"The resolve is as strong as it was on day one, and now we can sense there's something big coming our way we're determined to get it."

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