Harland and Wolff workers return to shipyard

Employees cheered asthey make their way back to work at historic shipyard in Belfast

With a shout of "let's go" and a chorus of claps and cheering a crowd of jubilant Harland and Wolff workers took their first steps back into work early Thursday morning after more than nine long weeks on a picket line.

The shipyard which built the Titanic once employed 35,000 people but had only 130 on its books when it was placed in administration.

On Thursday there was just 79 workers going back to work in the historic shipyard that was founded in 1861.

The last core workers at Harland and Wolff, who had been left devastated when the shipyard went into administration in August, had vowed to maintain a 24 hours-a-day protest outside its historic gates until it reopened.


They never faltered day or night. The picket was manned with the support of Unite and GMB trade union officials and a constant stream of people from east Belfast and much further afield delivering non stop "comfort food" from sausages rolls to stews and sweet treats to them.

It was however still a lonely outpost in the small hours in an eerily quiet shipyard with only the ghosts of the past to keep the last remaining Harland and Wolff workers company until daylight.

Many like Joe Passmore, Unite's union representative at the yard, felt they had no other choice.

For as long as Joe Passmore can remember there has always been two constants in his life; Samson and Goliath.

As a young child growing up in Rathcoole he could see the outline of Harland and Wolff's giant yellow cranes in the distance across Belfast Lough.

But for the last 35 years Samson and Goliath, as everyone calls them in Belfast, have been an even closer backdrop to his daily life.

Not only are they the first thing he sees when he opens his front door in the morning, they are often the last thing he sees if he happens to glance up at the night sky.

Mr Passmore has worked at Harland and Wolff for a total of 27 years, on and off, since he first entered through the gates of the shipyard as a 16 year old apprentice on the first of October in 1979.

The fortunes of the shipyard and the Passmore family's are intrinsically linked - his grandfather was a painter at the yard, his father a welder and he has countless cousins who also worked on many of the ships and Royal Navy vessels that were built at the shipyard, which at one time was among the biggest in Europe.

On the first day that Joe Passmore walked into the yard as a slightly anxious teenager Harland and Wolff had a workforce of more than 15,000 people.

A far cry from the 79 people who gathered eagerly at the shipyard’s gates to return to work on Thursday.

But the London AIM listed group, InfraStrata, which has agreed to buy the assets of Harland and Wolff Heavy Industries Limited and Harland and Wolff Group Plc from administrators say they want to boost the size of the workforce at the shipyard by “several hundred over the next five years.

According to administrators from BDO NI the agreed terms of sale “will include the transfer of the remaining employees on their existing terms and conditions to the purchaser upon completion.”

In the meantime Mr Passmore and his colleagues will take at least one more day to celebrate what Unite's regional coordinating officer Susan Fitzgerald described on Thursday morning as a "victory".

Ms Fitzgerald said the workers had defied the cynics who said they would not succeed with their campaign to save the yard.

She said what workers at Harland and Wolff had achieved would "inspire generations" and would send a message to other workers probably most immediately at this time to people struggling to come to terms with the collapse of Wrightbus and Thomas Cook.

Holding his Unite union flag high today outside the gates of the yard Joe Passmore also told his Harland and Wolff colleagues that they should be “extremely proud” of the stand they had taken and what they had achieved “with the backing our community and the trade union movement”.

“It’s been historic but you see what we’re going to achieve when we go through there it’s going to set the world alight, it’s a new Harland and Wolff and you’re the community that’s going to build that new Harland and Wolff, so believe in yourselves - now let’s get back to work,” he said to a round of loud cheers and clapping.

Francess McDonnell

Francess McDonnell

Francess McDonnell is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business