Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Harland and Wolff is a part of all of us... a microcosm of our pride, pain and creativity

It's wrong to measure the demise of the famous shipyard in purely economic terms, says Fionola Meredith

The bright yellow Harland and Wolff cranes are the best piece of public art that Belfast has
The bright yellow Harland and Wolff cranes are the best piece of public art that Belfast has
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Change is inevitable.Everything has an ending. But with the collapse of Harland and Wolff into administration, something much more than a famous Belfast business has been lost.

Of course, it's right that the prime focus should be on last-ditch attempts to save the yard and the jobs of the people who work there.

The remaining workers are a mere fraction of the great crowds who used to pour over the Queen's Bridge at 8 every morning, and back again at 5, but their jobs are no less vital to them and their families than they were to their many generations of forebears.

Yet it is a mistake to measure the demise of Harland's purely in economic terms.

Its passing - which seems increasingly likely as each day goes by, barring some kind of unforeseeable miracle - must be mourned as a deeper loss, striking at the very roots of our collective identity.

This is about more than money.

The shipyard, and what it represents, is an enormous part of who we are as a people. Whether for good or ill, the tumultuous history of the yard is woven through and through us. In many ways, it is a microcosm of our pride and our pain, our bitter conflict and our prodigious creativity.

Sign In

And its demise symbolises the way things are falling apart in Northern Ireland.

Harland and Wolff was once shipbuilder to the world, renowned for combining new technology with innovative design. The order books for its beautiful, powerful ships were full to bursting.

Each day, thousands of men - riveters, fitters, platers, coppersmiths and more - would pour through the gates. The Irish novelist Kate O'Brien memorably described the yard as "steel-shafted, furnaced, thundering ... the terrible heart and entrails of Belfast".

Out of this white-hot furnace of industry came Titanic, a world-beating leviathan, the most extraordinary ship of her time.

When she slid into the waters of Belfast harbour, it was a moment of unparalleled triumph for the men who made her. A moment that could never be repeated with the same innocence and pride, after Titanic sank in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic, less than a year later.

A terrible taint on the history of the yard was the expulsion of thousands of Catholic workers in the 1920s. There were shameful sectarian episodes during the Troubles too.

Later, the company took decisive steps to redress the religious imbalance and to welcome workers from all communities.

Yet the last time that Harland's was threatened with closure, in 2000, many republicans cheered, despite trade unionists pointing out that nobody had anything to gain from the demise of the yard and the resulting loss of future opportunities.

On this final occasion, there have been few dissenting voices - political or otherwise - from the struggle to save the company. The remaining Harland's workers have certainly put up a brave, vociferous fight.

But because we are without a government, the official response has inevitably been muted, confused and fragmentary. There is no locus of accountable power, no local leaders to call upon.

Northern Ireland is sailing rudderless, leaderless, into the dark, uncharted waters of Brexit. It seems a tragic irony, in this time of directionless muddle, that our once-mighty shipbuilding firm is allowed to die.

I visited Harland and Wolff in 2014 and was impressed by the way it had radically reimagined itself in order to survive, finding fresh opportunities in the world of offshore renewable energy, repairing oil rigs and wind-energy pylons.

Back then, it looked as though Harland's had rediscovered its future. In the main assembly hall, there was a bright, metallic hum of new things being made. Everything seemed to operate on a vast, super-human scale: the machines, the equipment, the transporters. Even the spanners were more than a metre long.

Now that hum of industry, which lasted 166 years, has at last been stilled.

For many people, the most painful part of the closure is the thought that the two great gantry cranes, Samson and Goliath, might disappear from the Belfast skyline.

These beautiful, instantly recognisable twin collosi are the best piece of public art that Belfast has. It's impossible to think of the city without them.

Fortunately, the cranes are recognised as official scheduled monuments, which means any proposal to change or remove them would require permission from the Department of Communities.

So the interminable stasis at Stormont at least ensures that Samson and Goliath will remain, for now.

We'll still glimpse them at the end of a terraced street, or look down on them from the surrounding hills, a brave bright yellow against the thunderclouds.

But the shipyard that gave them life has been abandoned to its fate.

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph