David McKittrick: Not everyone is weeping as the last ship leaves 'Titanic town'

The end of Belfast's shipbuilding industry
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The Independent Online

Weeds now grow where Belfast's proud workers built and launched the mighty Titanic and more than 1,700 other vessels in one of the greatest shipbuilding yards in the world.

Weeds now grow where Belfast's proud workers built and launched the mighty Titanic and more than 1,700 other vessels in one of the greatest shipbuilding yards in the world.

The Belfast shipyard will this week complete ship number 1,742 – its last – bringing to a poignant close a century and a half of maritime history. Titanic town, as it has been called, will build no more ships. Decades of decline have seen a workforce that once numbered more than 35,000 haemorrhage to less than 200, ending an era that began during the Industrial Revolution, and has now concluded with the new millennium.

Once the main industry of Northern Ireland, it has long been a central part of the region's history, economy and, indeed, psychology. Plans are in hand to develop new apartments and offices in the sprawling acres that now hold huge unsightly and rusting sheds.

It will be called the Titanic Quarter, emphasising that this was the birthplace of the ill-fated liner which was built here to the specifications of a local man, Thomas Andrews, who went down with the ship in 1912. Much of Belfast takes a perverse pride in having built the Titanic, display- ing no sense of sharing responsibility for its tragic end on its maiden voyage.

The company, Harland and Wolff, was so big that a large proportion of Belfast people have family connections with it: relatives of former footballer George Best, singer Van Morrison and flautist James Galway all worked there. They built not only the Titanic but a procession of other liners and oil tankers. In the Second World War the yard turned out more than 130 naval vessels, including six aircraft carriers, together with more than 100 merchant ships. Meanwhile, German bombers raided the yard, causing severe damage.

Since the war the story has been one of decline as attempts to diversify into oil tankers and oil-drilling ships failed to overcome the difficult market conditions.

The east Belfast yard, together with major engineering works elsewhere in the city, helped give Northern Ireland a character that set it apart from the largely rural south of the country. This helps explain why Ireland came to be partitioned into two states in the 1920s.

But its history, which has given so much pride and identity to Northern Ireland Protestants and Unionists, is simultaneously viewed by many Catholics as having a darker side. For most of its existence, its workforce was overwhelmingly Protestant, leading nationalists to condemn it as a bastion of sectarian discrimination. Its two giant cranes, Samson and Goliath, are plainly visible across the city from areas of high unemployment in Catholic west Belfast.

Anti-Catholic practices in the yard often went much further than a denial of jobs, since in the recurring times of high tension the few Catholic employees were attacked and expelled. On several occasions Catholic workers were actually killed. In one poem Seamus Heaney wrote of a docker:

That fist would drop a

hammer on a Catholic –

Oh yes, that kind of thing

could start again;

The only Roman collar he


Smiles all round his sleek

pint of porter.

The yard's obvious contribution to the war effort went alongside a tendency to take strike action for higher pay: Winston Churchill described one particular stoppage as shocking. Further work stoppages took place in the 1970s for a political purpose, as shipyard workers several times downed tools and marched en masse to the city centre in protest against British government policies.

Over the decades the yard also absorbed huge amounts of government money as it struggled to compete with competition from the Far East and elsewhere. Harold Wilson greatly resented this, denouncing loyalist workers as "spongers".

The shipyard's reputation as a symbol of the Protestant work ethic, grit and skill thus sits uneasily beside the criticisms that it stood as a symbol of unfairness. This has led to a certain lack of Catholic sympathy for the yard's plight. Its glorious industrial history is thus accompanied by a much more controversial record in terms of politics and community relations.

The shipyard is so big that it will take decades to cover the rust of today with the buildings of tomorrow. Yet all around it, luxury apartments, new hotels and major leisure facilities are springing up, changing the face of the city.