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Last Updated:  Friday, 21 March, 2003, 09:08 GMT
The blot on a proud name
Shipyard cranes
The yard's shipbuilding order book is empty
As the BBC marks the end of shipbuilding in Belfast, NI business editor James Kerr looks at the thorny issue of shop-floor sectarianism which became a blot on Harland and Wolff's name.

Harland and Wolff has a proud industrial history - but its past record on fair employment practice is less impressive.

When Sam Thompson's play Over the Bridge was first performed in 1960, it prompted a storm of protest - for its portrayal of the shipyard as a Protestant workplace for Protestant people.

But the reality is that throughout most of its history, only a tiny fraction of the workforce was Catholic and there were reasons for that.

In 1994, Maurice O'Kane was shot dead while he worked on a vessel.

Jack Nicohol, a retired trade unionist and former shop steward remembers one incident in particular in 1970 - when tensions rose in the yard following a series of shootings in east Befast.

"The next Monday a mob of about 100 people came into the steel metal shop to put Catholics out - they put every Catholic out.

"I'd been there talking to a man I knew to be a Catholic. I escorted him out. They were saying things like 'Get the Fenian'.

It was frightening for me, I can only imagine what it was like for him."

Trade unionists say that for the most part, workers from the two communities got on well.

They say it was a small minority who looked to stir tensions - and out of fear most workers simply kept their heads down.

But it was an environment in which loyalist flags and bunting were regarded as acceptable, as were commemorations with overtly loyalist overtones.

Joe Stewart, who became head of personnel in 1990, said the board took a decision to bring such practices to an end.

"It took a couple of years but we succeeded. We needed to move things on a considerable distance to come up to the mark with other employers in Northern Ireland.

"Some of the rest had tackled these issues but we hadn't."

Shipyard view
The vast yard once employed 30,000 people
Changing the profile of a workforce is almost impossible when a company is shrinking and not expanding - but despite this, Harland's did take steps to improve its appeal to Catholics - and make itself more accessible.

Peter Williamson, another former shop steward and official of the Amicus union said: "The unions and management worked together and we had initiatives where we went out into schools, and talked to community and church leaders to encourage more Catholic apprentices to join."

The whole issue remains extremely potent. Many former workers genuinely believe that this was not sectarian workplace - and resent any suggestion otherwise.

But by the standards of today, some of the practices there were completely unacceptable.

This was not a neutral workplace - and a small section of the workforce sought to keep it that way.

That discrimination and bigotry is a stain that prevents part of the Northern Ireland community relating to Harland's past and its otherwise proud history.




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