Shipyard's anger over lost contract

BBC News Online, Friday 10 March 2000, 14:11 GMT

Belfast's Harland and Wolff shipyard has criticised Northern Ireland government departments after losing a major contract.

The yard now faces the threat of closure with the loss of more than 1,700 jobs.

The company has no new orders on its books and will finish any existing work by June.

The statement came after the announcement that a deal for a new multi-million pound liner had gone to a yard in France.

Miami-based Cunard has signed a letter of intention with French shipyard Chantiers de L'Atlantique to build the 400m Queen Mary II superliner.

In its statement, the company said its financing package did not meet the requirements of the customer and had a severe impact on its competitiveness.

It said the efforts of the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) in London to assist the package contrasted sharply with departments in Belfast which, it said, showed a lack of ability or desire to demonstrate any realistic support to the company.

This is thought to be a reference to a grant of almost 40m in aid that the company was seeking and how it would be paid.

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said the government had done all it legitimately could to assist the Belfast yard's bid.

Speaking in Glasgow, Mr Blair said: Obviously we are disappointed at the decision, though it's a decision by a commercial company.

What we had to do was to give maximum assistance to the Harland and Wolff bid which we did.

The Prime Minister said both an application for government assistance and for a ship mortgage had been met in full.

He added that both applications were approved to the maximum allowed.

It had been hoped that a last-minute DTI offer to guarantee a loan to finance 80% of the Queen Mary project would aid the shipyard's prospects.

‘Deeply disappointed’

Earlier on Friday, following the announcement, a Harland and Wolff spokesman described the government offer as too little, too late.

He said the firm, which built the doomed liner Titanic and the Canberra cruise ship, was deeply disappointed not to have won the contract.

We now have to consider the implications of this decision, but the battle on the part of the company to bring future work and guarantee the company's future is far from over, he said.

There are other opportunities which will be pursued aggressively.

The news came hours after shipyard workers had held a mass meeting to discuss the crisis threatening their jobs.

Most of the workers rejected a recent management proposal for a three-year no strike agreement with unions.

East Belfast MP Peter Robinson, whose constituency includes the shipyard, said the ramifications of closure would be felt throughout Northern Ireland.

I am gutted. It's a devastating blow for the thousands of people who depend on Harland and Wolff for their livelihoods, he said.

There are other possibilities, though maybe less obvious, which require government movement to bring forward Ministry of Defence contracts.

Stephen Kingon of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce said the news was a body blow to the local economy.

It is obviously a very sad day, he told BBC Radio Ulster.

What was one of our flagship industries in the past now finds itself in the position where its future order book is zero after the completion of the drilling ships.

Bobby Moore, chairman of the senior shop stewards committee in the yard, said: We are totally devastated by the news that the Queen Mary has gone to the French competition.

Mr Moore, who has worked in the yard for 28 years, said: It is an absolutely devastating blow to me and my family and all the workers and all their families.

In a statement, Micky Arison, the chairman and chief executive of the Carnival Corporation, Cunard's parent company, confirmed the letter of intent had been signed.

He said: Over the last months, our vision of the first true ocean liner to be built in a generation has evolved from a dream to a detailed plan on paper.

We are satisfied that the shipyard that created Normandie, France and other legendary liners has the capability to make that dream a reality.

The final deal is expected to be confirmed within three months.