August 25, 2019
News Opinion

MICHAEL WOLSEY: Titanic town left high and dry

AS a boy growing up in Belfast I would sometimes witness the amazing sight of a shift change at the shipyard.

The factory horns would blow and thousands of men would stream from the many gates of the Harland and Wolff complex.

Half of them would turn left and head to their homes in the narrow streets and terraced houses of east Belfast. The rest would stream over the Queen’s Bridge to other parts of the city.

This human tide would fill the entire length and breadth of the bridge and many nearby streets as well.

No vehicle could drive against it and only a very foolhardy pedestrian would have attempted to head in the opposite direction. If that was your intention you would just have to wait, for the men of the Yard did not yield to anyone.

How many men work in the shipyard, went the old Belfast joke. Reply: about half of them.

The true answer at that time (the late 1950s and early Sixties) was that Harland and Wolff had some 15,000 employees on its books. Although no-one seemed to realise it, the Yard’s best days were already behind it. Fifty years earlier, when it built the Titanic and other huge liners, twice that number had been employed at what was one of the biggest shipyards in the world.

The Yard now has 125 workers on its books. As I write, they are occupying what is left of the massive complex in the faint hope of saving it from total closure.

Very few Catholics were among the many thousands who worked at the Yard down the years. That was not quite as simple or as blatantly sectarian an issue as it seems. Jobs were passed from father to son and, in Belfast’s horrible religious divide, different trades were dominated by different persuasions.

The docks, for instance, were an almost exclusively Catholic domain. Work there was casual, but privileged members of the Irish Transport and General Workers Union could acquire a ‘blue button’ which pretty much guaranteed regular employment. Fathers would pass this on to their sons.

The playwright, Martin Lynch, recalls how he had expected to follow his father and two older brothers into dock work and was shocked to find that his da had only served enough time to pass on the button to two of his boys.

Despite this setback, Martin was never out of work. “There was enough casual to keep me going,” he says. But casual labour at the docks was not as good as permanent employment with Harland and Wolff.

Belfast’s best jobs were in the Yard and the many engineering firms that supplied it. Nearly all of these jobs went to Protestants. What they saw as their good fortune – and some as their entitlement – turned out to be a curse.

Protestant working-class lads were sure of employment and so, when free third-level education opened the door to university, they did not take the opportunity.

Working-class Catholics, by contrast, seized the chance to acquire qualifications that would allow them to bypass the road-blocks placed in their path by Belfast’s sectarian industrialists.

The Protestant workers backed the wrong horse. Even by the time of my childhood, heavy industry was in decline. Now it is all but gone.

Their well-paid jobs became poorly paid jobs and for many, like the men of the Yard, no jobs at all.

I won’t shed tears for Harland and Wolff… But I am a little sorry to see it go. It is part of the history of my home city and, more than that, part of its fabric and fibre.

It helped shape the city’s character and its decidedly dark humour. How many men work in the shipyard? None of them.

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