Belfast's unsinkable shipyard

SUN JOURNAL

Comeback: New contracts and waterfront development are buoying Harland and Wolff - industrial symbol and builder of the Titanic - which had seen hard times.

June 12, 2000|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BELFAST, Northern Ireland - The Titanic couldn't topple it, warplanes couldn't crush it and terrorism's troubles couldn't close it.

Harland and Wolff is Northern Ireland's unsinkable shipyard and age-old industrial symbol.

What the Empire State Building is to New York and the Golden Gate Bridge is to San Francisco, Harland and Wolff's giant yellow cranes are to Belfast - dominant shapes on a skyline.

They even have nicknames, "Samson" and "Goliath."

This is where steel, sweat and dreams created more than 1,700 ships, including the ill-fated Titanic, sunk after it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage to America in 1912.

The old shipyard, which bustled with 35,000 employees during the height of World War II, is mostly a gray ghost these days, with 1,800 workers. Yet with new orders coming in, there is hope of better days.

In the building dock, workers are putting the finishing touches on an ultradeep-water drill ship called the Glomar Jack Ryan, which from hull to drilling derrick is taller than Big Ben.

The panel line, where great clumps of steel begin to take the shape of ships, lies empty.

But the yard carries on.

"This is a symbol of heavy industry and pride," says Chris Maxwell, a senior steward in the union who has been working here as a plumber for 26 years. "A lot of people are very proud of the yard, about what it has achieved. We've got a proud history of shipbuilding here."

A sampling of the history is on display in the company's paneled boardroom.

Among the ship models is the Titanic, with the notation "sunk April 14, 1912 by iceberg." There is also the Garfield, which in 1882 sailed from Liverpool to Calcutta, India, in 94 days, a fleet trip in the days before air travel.

On the wall is a "Ship Yard Poem," with the line, "It is a wondrous thing to see a proud ship find her soul at last."

Shipbuilding and Belfast go hand in hand. With its woodland, natural harbor and orientation toward the sea, the city by the Lagan River has been turning out ships for centuries, although written records go back only as far as 1636.

The city's most famous shipyard was established on Queen's Island in 1861, when Gustav Wolff joined fellow engineer Edward James Harland.

Harland and Wolff was an engine room for Britain. From 1870 to 1914, the company was the most prolific builder of trans-Atlantic liners in the world. Ships such as the Teutonic, Majestic and Oceanic conjure up images of size and speed, and an age when traveling in style meant formal dinners and continental tours.

Two world wars brought out another side of the company, the ability to undertake crash programs and create gun-carrying ships. Despite German bombing that destroyed 60 percent of the shipyard's facilities in early 1941, the company produced 139 naval vessels during World War II, including six aircraft carriers.

In recent years, the yard, like others in northern Europe, declined in the face of stiff competition from companies in Asia. Harland and Wolff also faced added struggles when the terrorist troubles began in the late 1960s. To some, Harland and Wolff was a contentious company, with an overwhelmingly Protestant work force that matched the makeup of its east Belfast neighborhood.

Old-timers remember the Irish Republican Army attempting to blow up one of the big cranes.

Almost inevitably, it was economics, not terrorism, that brought Harland and Wolff to dire straits in recent years. The British government eventually sold the company in 1989 in a management and employee buyout. Norway's Fred.Olsen Energy is the parent company.

Last month, in a make-or-break union vote to save the yard from closure, workers accepted a package that included a three-year wage freeze, a no-strike agreement and layoffs of about 300 jobs.

Hopes for survival have risen in recent weeks with an order for four passenger ferries from Seamasters International and a letter of intent with Luxus Holdings Ltd. for the design and construction of two luxury cruise vessels.

There was another stir last week when a South African millionaire, Sarel Gous, briefed the Belfast City Council on plans to build Titanic II, billed as being bigger and better than the original.

The people at Harland and Wolff have seen it all before, though, with a spokesman saying that about once a week someone inquires about building another Titanic.

Executives are concentrating on attempting to secure the yard's future by winning contracts and building ships.

"There's only one group that can save the yard - the management and workers," says Harland and Wolff's chief executive, Brynjulv Mugaas. "Not the government. Not the municipal community. If we can't create the necessary commercial basis, there is no future for jobs here. But I believe we can create a commercial basis and win orders."

Asked what he envisions for Belfast and the company in the next few years, Mugaas says, "I'm sure Belfast will look like a very prosperous city and, if we succeed, there will be a shipbuilder in the middle of it."

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