Hammer blow may break an industry that has grown up with Unionist iron in its soul

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The Belfast shipbuilding industry, whose existence is now threatened by a lack of orders, has long held a central place in the politics, economy and indeed the fundamental psychology of Northern Ireland.

The Belfast shipbuilding industry, whose existence is now threatened by a lack of orders, has long held a central place in the politics, economy and indeed the fundamental psychology of Northern Ireland.

For more than a century it has stood as the epitome of self-sufficiency and the Protestant work ethic, a symbol not just of industrial might but of Unionist grit and determination.

Even the sinking of the Titanic did not shake the Protestant self-image, for paradoxically the ill-fated ship is remembered in Belfast not with embarrassment but with pride.

An end to shipbuilding in the city would be not just a disaster for its workers but the end of an era. Belfast has been identified with shipbuilding for a century and a half, the industry acting as one of the mainstays of the city's huge expansion in the Victorian era. Its development had implications beyond the purely economic. The arrival of shipbuilding and heavy engineering companies tied Belfast in with the industrial belt of Scotland and the North of England, marking it out from the agricultural character of the rest of Ireland.

This uneven economic development became inextricably linked with the religious dimension, as the Protestant community established a near-monopoly in shipbuilding and engineering. The pattern was set as early as the 1860s when the 3,000 shipyard workers included only 225 Catholics.

The shipyards became known as bastions of loyalism. In times of high tension, such as the partition of Ireland, those Catholics working in the shipyards were traditionally "put out" - that is, forcibly ejected.

According to one eyewitness from the Twenties: "Men with sledge-hammers and other weapons swooped down on Catholic workers ... and didn't even give them a chance for their lives. The vests and shirts of those at work were torn open to see if the men were wearing any Catholic emblems, and then woe betide the man who was."

These expulsions were accompanied by showers of what was known as "Belfast confetti," as Catholics were pelted with rivets and scrap metal.

The yards were always a tough place, police being as unwelcome as Catholics. A Belfast commissioner of police plaintively explained after one disturbance: "A police presence there was regarded as an intrusion and an insult. Even in ordinary times a policeman in uniform has missiles frequently thrown at him."

This tough assertiveness reached particular heights during the Second World War as the shipyards employed 20,000 men, turning out 140 warships and many merchant vessels. While this was an essential part of the war effort, shipyard workers also became known for their readiness to go on strike for higher pay. One particular strike was described by Winston Churchill as shocking and by the Stormont government as sabotage and a betrayal. But when five of the strike leaders were jailed, the entire shipbuilding workforce downed tools until the employers and the government caved in.

During the Seventies they incurred the wrath of Harold Wilson, who during a 1974 loyalist general strike, described them and Protestant workers in general as "spongers".

Edward Heath had little more sympathy for the industry. A former civil servant recalled in his memoirs being present at a dinner when a local businessman assured the former prime minister, "Of course, we're all liberals here." Sir Edward is said to have replied: "There are 10,000 workers in Harland and Wolff and only 300 Catholics. I don't see anything very liberal about that."

The shipyard's giant yellow gantries in East Belfast are clearly visible from the upper reaches of the unemployment blackspot of West Belfast, where most of the city's Catholics live. Catholic males have an unemployment rate of more than double that of their Protestant counterparts.

Although there are many reasons for this, the cynical working-class Catholic view is that the shipyard has played a key role in providing jobs for Protestants, very often at the taxpayer's expense.

Thus it is that while nobody really wants shipbuilding to go under, nationalists are displaying a distinct lack of sympathy for the industry's plight. For Protestants it has been a treasured part of their heritage; for Catholics it has been a byword for unfairness.