Belfast shipyard workers occupied the Harland and Wolff site ahead of a rally that took place today (July 30) calling on the government to save the historic shipyard from closure.
In dramatic scenes, “angry and frustrated” workers barred the gates yesterday afternoon, hung a massive “Save Our Yard” banner from one of its famous yellow cranes and maintained a presence throughout the night.
The protest, which workers say will continue around the clock until a solution is found, is being backed by Unite.
The workers are demanding action to save around 130 jobs and for the embattled shipyard, where the Titanic was built, to be nationalised.
Harland and Wolff is facing imminent administration after a potential buyer pulled out of a deal with the yard’s parent company Fred Olsen Energy, which is facing severe financial problems and put the site up for sale last winter.
Unite has been calling for Royal Naval and Fleet Auxiliary ships to be block built in shipyards across Britain, rather than putting the contracts out for international tender.
This would prevent the loss of the UK’s vital shipbuilding capabilities – such as those now at risk at Harland and Wolff.
Harland and Wolff steelworker and Unite member Joe Passmore said “exasperated” workers took control of the yard after attempts to find an agreement with management failed.
He said, “We’ve pleaded with politicians from all parties to come down and support us, to either get us money or re-nationalise us as they did in Scotland.
“They just seem unable to help us. They hide behind civil servants, they hide behind Stormont and they just seem to be sitting on their hands.
“We had to go back to tell our workforce that’s it, there’s no future and we’re closing on Wednesday night and we’re all unemployed. They were furious, so we’ve decided to take matters into our own hands.”
Following the impromptu occupation, Harland and Wolff’s management told workers the shipyard’s administration had been delayed until Monday – providing an extra five days to prevent the site from closing.
Unite regional organiser Susan Fitzgerald called on Boris Johnson to nationalise the 160-year-old yard.
She said, “Workers fighting to preserve Harland and Wolff deserve the support of everyone concerned for the future of jobs and skills in Northern Ireland.
“Prime Minister Boris Johnson will this week make his first visit to Northern Ireland as PM, and Unite is again calling on his government to nationalise Harland and Wolff and cooperate with the workers to chart a way forward for the yard.”
The workers received messages of support from across Unite and the wider Labour movement.
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner tweeted, “Solidarity!! A proud yard driven into crisis by a failed govt refusing to recognise the importance of UK Shipbuilding and block building our ships across UK yards rather than overseas.”
A message from Unite leader Len McCluskey was also read to workers during a rally outside the yard this afternoon.
McCluskey said, “Your spirit and determination is an inspiration to our movement. If Boris Johnson and Andrea Leadsom had even an ounce of your vision and courage then this yard would be safe today and into the future.
“Your Union fully supports the demand for nationalisation of Harland and Wolff. This is a viable enterprise, and you, the workers – who know the situation best – have identified potential business which could turn the shipyard around.
“We take our lead from you. You are fighting back – you refuse to let your yard and your streets fall quiet – and you will have your union with you every step of the way.”
A government spokesperson said, “We will work with partners in Northern Ireland and in Westminster to understand the situation and do all we can to support, but it is ultimately a commercial issue.
“The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, has had conversations with Invest NI and ministers across government as a matter of urgency.”