A class fight is brewing at Belfast’s iconic Harland and Wolff Shipyard. In our first letter from abroad, Pádraig Durnin, Dundee Radical Independence activist now undertaking a PhD in History in Belfast, asks whether the workers’ occupation can break the dysfunction of the Northern Irish state and help generate a new coalition around an economic and ecological alternative.
Dominating the Belfast press this week, overshadowing even the visit of Boris Johnson, has been the fate of the Harland and Wolff shipyard (H&W), until recently one of the city’s largest workplaces, and still employing 130 workers desperately trying to save their jobs. As rumours of the imminent arrival of administrators following the bankruptcy of its Norwegian parent company, Dolphin Drilling, reached fever-pitch, trade unionists from Unite and the GMB at the yard resolved not to go quietly into the night, taking control of the shipyard gates on Monday 29 July. Since then, they have maintained a 24-hour presence, occupying their workplace. Trade unionists and socialists from across the North of Ireland and beyond were present at a solidarity rally held at noon on Tuesday, and the following morning workers were again present as Johnson arrived at Stormont, demanding the British Government step in to nationalise the yard and protect every job.
H&W has had outsize influence over Belfast long predating the erection of “Samson” and “Goliath”, the iconic twin gantry cranes visible across the city, in 1969 and 1974. The yard, in the heart of overwhelmingly Protestant East Belfast, is a totemic symbol of unionist identity. The degree of privilege through secure and relatively well-paying employment afforded to Protestant workers over their Catholic counterparts helped cement the unionist class coalition necessary to implement the partition of Ireland. It also deprived the new state established after the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 the bulk of its rightful industrial base, situated in its north-eastern six counties.
But first and foremost, the fruits of their labour came to a hegemonic unionist bourgeoisie. Its founders, although English and German in birth respectively, served as Unionist MPs during the Home Rule crises of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. After partition, their successors became part of a ruling elite which administered the new Northern Irish statelet as a private fiefdom practically unchallenged for almost half a century. Thomas Carnduff (1886-1955), known as the “Shipyard Poet”, alludes how workers created their vast wealth in his poem “The Road Gang”, where he describes “builders of ships and mansions”. While the ships are gone, the “big houses” around the fringes of South and East Belfast and along the North Down coast remain.
Periodic violence took place against the minority of Catholic workers in the yard, particularly during the pogroms of the 1920s, but also intermittently before and afterwards, notably with the expulsion of Catholic workers from the yard at the start of the Northern conflict in 1970. However, to see the yard as a pure bastion of reaction would be to oversimplify. The Ulster Workers’ Council strike in April 1974 was initially only supported by a tiny fraction of the workforce (50-100 out of 10,000), and only closed the yard after threats were made that any vehicle left in the car park after 2.30pm on the strike’s second day would be burned. Also during the conflict, 2,000 predominantly Protestant workers walked out on strike in response to the assassination of a Catholic colleague by the UVF in 1994.
Overall, the decline of the yard has reflected the death agonies of unionism as a class coalition built on decent industrial jobs. A new pan-confession middle class is contemptuous of working class Protestants and Catholics alike; shipyard workers and their struggles are viewed as anachronistic in a city where inward investment is sought through gleaming call-centres with poor union density and workers on minimum wage salaries.
Wages in Belfast have remained considerably lower than Scotland and England, and even as the shipbuilding industry dwindled in Great Britain too, until relatively recently a steady seepage of time-served workers across the water has taken place. Those who remained have seen a long stream of redundancies, in spite of nationalisation in 1974 (although nationalised, H&W was left outwith the auspices of British Shipbuilders, which covered the rest of the shipping industry in the UK).
Privatisation in 1989 was a sham: Norwegian multinational Fred Olsen paid £12 million for the yard providing the British Government made a £20 million development grant available (though the site is now separate from the multinational Fred Olsen conglomerate, it still retains a considerable shareholding). Furthermore, the takeover would in part be an “employee buy-out”, a popular approach to privatisation in late 1980s, but while 51% of the shares would be in the hands of the workers, Fred Olsen would have a majority on the board.
The last ship built left the yard in January 2003, and since then its primary work has been in building offshore oil platforms, and more recently, wind and tidal turbines. Significant parts of its former holdings have been sold off, with the company’s former headquarters building opening as a boutique hotel in 2017, next door to “Titanic Belfast”, a permanent exhibition to the yard’s most famous project, housed in an extravagant piece of monumental contemporary architecture, but doing little to acknowledge the modern-day workers who remain at H&W.
Accompanying H&W’s shift into wind and tidal turbines had been a tremendous shift to renewable energy in the North of Ireland — two fifths of electricity generated across the six counties came from renewables over the year ending in March according to figures from the Department for the Economy, yet few of the components are produced here. The supply chains are entirely outwith the control of the people of the North, who are limited to the handful of jobs in maintaining infrastructure manufactured elsewhere.
Tremendous subsidies have been made available from the state, with the egregious excess of the Renewable Heating Incentive which helped bring down the Northern Ireland Executive in January 2017 being the outstanding example, but nothing has filtered down to the industrial base. There appears to be a clear divorce between the environmentalist lobby and the workers and unions striving to defend existing jobs. Efforts to bridge this gap are behind the rest of the UK, with no equivalent emerging to the likes of Labour for a Green New Deal, which whatever the vagueness of its demands and lack of a clear framework for bringing about radical economic democracy has undoubtedly energised a discussion within the labour movement.
Perhaps something of a breakthrough has begun to emerge from the Green Party on Belfast City Council in recent days. The Green Party draws its vote primarily from South and East Belfast (having little presence in nationalist areas), and has therefore been pressed into a degree of localist engagement; a statement from its Ormiston councillor Anthony Flynn highlighted the disparity between the future of manufacturing for the renewable energy sector in the North, and the ongoing consideration by the Department of the Economy for the grant of a licence for fracking exploration in County Fermanagh by Tamboran (an Irish-owned company registered in Jersey), and another for petroleum exploration in a 1000 square kilometre area which stretches from Lough Neagh to West Belfast. Both are currently being opposed by vibrant community campaigns, with thousands of objection letters being gathered. In the twenty-six counties, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith has pushed for a Climate Emergency Measures Bill to revoke licences for fossil fuel exploration across the state, but even if this is successful (and that appears unlikely at the moment, given the visceral opposition of Leo Varadkar’s Fine Gael government), it will be critically undermined so long as such licences continue to be granted on the other side of the border. If manufacturing jobs in renewables are lost for good, the North will be little more than a raw materials base for energy, its wealth stripped off by multinationals, while the spectre of emigration looms longer over young workers.
Every political party in the North has seen fit to show face at the workers’ protests, although many have been coy about their actual position, drawing back from making any official statements. Declarations of support have tended to stop some way short of explicitly endorsing the demand for full renationalisation of the yard made by the unions, and from the DUP (which holds Belfast East as a safe seat) have been lacking entirely beyond a singular appearance by its local MP, Gavin Robinson, at the picket. For example, the SDLP’s Business Spokesperson Pat Catney spoke of a need for “minor short term support” for the yard. Sinn Féin’s friendly discussion with the protesters outside Stormont abounded with symbolism given H&W’s history, but lacked anything concrete, although party members like Ruairí Creaney, a senior organiser in the CWU, have been more explicit in their backing for renationalisation.
Perhaps more importantly, the workers are building new alliances with those failed by the dysfunctional political system in the North of Ireland. As they protested outside Stormont during Boris Johnson’s flying meetings with the leadership of the North’s five largest parties this Wednesday, alongside them stood activists from An Dream Dearg campaigning for an Irish Language Act, and the slogan “Sábháil ar gClós” (“Save our shipyard”) was picked up by Joe Passmore, a H&W steelworker and Unite shop steward. As well as being a rebuke to the DUP’s attempts to turn the Irish language into a sectarian issue, it illustrates an opportunity for the “movement of movements” against the DUP’s maladministration of the North (which has also encompassed campaigners for equal marriage and abortion rights) to come into contact with a politics of class, although again, how this interfaces with a burgeoning but largely detached environmentalist politics is less clear. This is a challenging period, but also one which is bearing witness to a revival of activist participation and political militancy.
Pictures: Pádraig Durnin, Noel Gibson