If ever a lesson was needed in how the worst of capitalism works, it can be found in the scandalous collapse of Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard into administration. When Newry-based cruise ship-fitter MJM group plunged the iconic yard into crisis by pulling out of negotiations to buy it as a viable going concern, the die was cast. The yard was forced into the hands of administrators from which the vultures, including MJM, could pick up the pieces at scrap value and without its highly-skilled, loyal workforce in tow.
In the murky world of profit at any cost this may make sense. After all, the firm has already declared its willingness to desert Northern Ireland for Poland post-Brexit. But for the workforce, their families and a community that’s supported shipbuilding for 158 years, it is a gross betrayal. This unforgivable act of industrial vandalism has, in the proud tradition of working-class struggle, resulted in the workforce, supported by their unions Unite and GMB, occupying the site.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way. This isn’t a yard without work or a future. Disgracefully labelled by Boris Johnson’s government as falling foul of a “commercial decision,” Harland and Wolff is simply a yard without an owner, caught in a trap of its parent company’s bankruptcy, unable to renew existing contracts or sign new ones for available work. Rather than washing their hands of another manufacturing heartland, Tory ministers, and their partners in crime the DUP, should have stepped in to give the yard time to continue trading as a going concern until a suitable buyer could be found. Something they’d already done with British Steel.
As a going concern, confidence would have been retained among workers, customers, suppliers and contractors. The yard could have signed the contract for a nine-month Tarranova refit worth over £70 million and creating some 1,500 jobs. It could have built on its steel fabrication contracts for wind farm and offshore wind turbines. And it would continue to be a valuable part of the team working with BAE on the nation’s Dreadnought submarine programme.
Harland and Wolff is also central to the UK consortium’s bid to build the Royal Navy’s Fleet Solid Support ships and has an important part to play in the building of the navy’s new Type 31e Frigates. And, with the largest dry dock in the UK, only Harland and Wolff can accommodate our new Royal Navy aircraft carriers when they need to come in for scheduled refit, maintenance and repair work. It’s not just in the economic and social interests of Northern Ireland that the government steps in, but in the strategic defence interests of the UK.
No government intervention
As John McDonnell told the workforce when he met them on Monday, it’s difficult to understand why the government hasn’t intervened. What sense is there in allowing the pension fund to collapse into the pension protection scheme? What sense is there in paying the workforce redundancy pay and benefits when it’s cheaper to pay wages and retain skills and knowledge that, once lost, will never return? A deal could still be done with the Harbour Board and Belfast City Council to address, in the short-term, fixed costs such as business rates and rent.
What government, let alone one screaming from the rooftops that it is ‘taking back control’ of the UK, would allow such a disaster to occur, cynically jettisoning both today’s workforce and hope for the next generation of a decent, well-paid and skilled job? Yes, let’s take back control: control of Harland and Wolff.
But it all makes perfect sense to a government ideologically committed to a free-market that, left to its own short-term, profit-driven devices, will destroy every last vestige of UK manufacturing. The DUP, within whose constituency of East Belfast Harland and Wolff lies, are the party of ‘appeasement,’ propping up Johnson’s failing government and choosing not to intervene. They should hold their heads in shame.
A joined-up industrial strategy would secure the long-term future of Harland and Wolff, commit to building Royal Navy ships, including support vessels, here in the UK, and to using UK steel and other supplies in their construction. It would be transformative, giving vital confidence to a sector desperately struggling with the collapse of investment and uncertainties over Brexit. Rather than sitting idly by, Johnson and his ministers should meet with and take a lesson from the proud workforce now occupying the yard, and with the unions who have worked tirelessly to build and argue the case for a viable alternative plan.
Quite apart from the economic sense of intervention, how can our political class stand by and ignore such a proud and determined workforce, or the communities that have rallied around them, supplying daily food trucks and entertainment for the kids joining their parents on the gate?
The Scottish government is rightly looking to nationalise Ferguson Marine on the Clyde, another shipyard vital to our national defence and UK shipbuilding, but without a sitting devolved parliament in Northern Ireland, Harland and Wolff doesn’t have that option. But hang on, you say, what about that £1 billion bung Theresa May gave the DUP to prop up her government? Wasn’t that intended to support Northern Irish communities?
Some lot of good that did to the communities facing the loss of unionised, well-paid and skilled jobs for generations to come. It will be a disaster for them, their families and the communities that they support.
For the Northern Ireland economy, already reeling from the loss of Michelin and other great manufacturing icons, the future is not bright. It’ll take more than the ‘can do’ Dunkirk-esque ranting of the Prime Minister to convince anyone otherwise. With the future of WrightBus uncertain and a ‘for sale’ sign hanging over Bombardier, it’s looking like manufacturing in Northern Ireland faces a complete meltdown.
No government, or politician, should be allowed to stand idly by and allow that to happen. A workforce as determined as that at Harland and Wolff, steadfastly supported by a working-class community and trade union movement, won’t let them. They will continue to stand proud, united and in occupation of their yard, believing that they can and will win the future they deserve.
This comment first appeared in Tribune, August 6