Harland and Wolff: Belfast shipyard bought by UK firm

By John Campbell
BBC News NI Economics & Business Editor

image source, PAcemaker

Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard has been sold, saving it from closure.

The yard, best known for building the Titanic, was bought for £6m by the London-based energy firm, InfraStrata.

Harland and Wolff went into administration in August, putting about 120 jobs at risk, after the collapse of its Norwegian parent company.

InfraStrata said it will retain the 79 workers who are still employed. It also hopes to increase the workforce by "several hundred" over five years.

The trade union, Unite, said it expects people to return to work as early as this week.

media caption, The history of the Belfast shipyard

InfraStrata will initially focus on metal fabrication for its energy projects.

The company's main project is a gas storage project at Islandmagee in County Antrim where it hopes to begin construction enabling works before the end of the year.

It is also planning a separate, floating gas storage facility, but there are complications, including planning permission requirements and opposition from local residents.

Analysis - BBC NI Environment Correspondent Conor Macauley:

InfraStrata has said the Islandmagee Gas Storage Project will initially provide the bulk of the work for the shipyard.

It is a plan to hollow out large caverns under Larne Lough to store gas, something that has been talked about since 2012.

The proposal has some planning permissions, but a key plank of approval is not yet in place.

A marine licence, necessary for work on the seabed in the North Channel off Portmuck, is still outstanding.

Without it, the necessary seabed work can not proceed and the process of securing it can sometimes prove a lengthy one.

There is also considerable local opposition to the gas storage plan on environmental grounds.

image caption, The Islandmagee Gas Storage Project has been discussed since 2012

In particular conservationists worry about part of the construction process.

Salt water would be used to hollow out the gas caverns, before the brine solution created would be pumped out to sea.

It has been claimed that brine solution could be harmful to sealife in its immediate vicinity.

The company said it would quickly be diluted and disperse and would not be harmful.

An added complication is that the area of the proposed brine outfall has recently been made a protected area.

The North Channel Marine Protected Area has been designated for its important population of harbour porpoises.

Infrastrata will have to supply environmental information on the impact of the proposal as part of the application process, and there will have to be a public consultation.

InfraStrata chief executive John Wood said: "Harland and Wolff is a landmark asset and its reputation as one of the finest multi-purpose fabrication facilities in Europe is testament to its highly skilled team in Belfast."

The news follows a nine-week occupation of the shipyard by workers, supported by their unions.

Unite regional officer Susan Fitzgerald said the workers had "defied the cynics".

"As well as safeguarding their own futures, the workers have sent a message that will be heard across Northern Ireland, most immediately by Wrightbus workers in Ballymena," she said.

PA Media
Harland and Wolff

The Belfast shipyard in numbers

  • 35,000workers employed at its peak during World War Two

  • £1bnof taxpayers' money was pumped into it to keep it afloat

  • 79jobs have been retained following its sale in October 2019

Source: BBC

Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said he was "delighted" by the news and the fact that the skills and experience of the existing workforce would be retained.

"I firmly believe that the shipyard has a promising future and InfraStrata's plans present an exciting opportunity for both Belfast and Northern Ireland's manufacturing and energy sectors," he said.

image source, Getty Images
image caption, The Titanic in dry dock at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in February 1912

Accountancy firm BDO, who had been formally appointed to oversee the Belfast shipyard when it entered administration, said the "agreed terms of sale will include the transfer of the remaining employees on their existing terms and conditions to the purchaser upon completion".

"In the interim, it is intended that the remaining employees will be able to return to work in the coming days to facilitate the remaining steps required for the completion of a sale," a BDO spokesperson said.

"This is a very positive step towards securing a sale of the shipyard and protecting and safeguarding the employment of the workforce."

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson welcomed news of the sale.

He said: "The last two months have been uncertain for the workforce, but their fortitude and indeed, the support from their Unions and the wider community, has been incredible.

"Today's announcement not only brings comfort for the workforce who kept their dignified presence at the yard, but Infrastrata have also outlined ambitious plans for growth in the future."

More on this story