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Thursday, 24 August, 2000, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
The yard that built the Titanic

Harland and Wolff built the Titanic
The Harland and Wolff shipyard was once one of Northern Ireland's flagship companies but has slipped into decline over the past two decades.

Established in 1861, the H&W yard on Queen's Island in east Belfast was where the ill-fated Titanic was built.

The firm still dominates the Belfast skyline with its two massive yellow cranes, Samson and Goliath, probably the city's best known landmark.

Harland and Wolff has been a major employer in Belfast.

At the start of the 20th century the company was the most prolific builder of ocean liners in the world. Its workforce reached a peak in the 1950s when it employed about 35,000 people.

It has produced more than 1,700 ships to date.

A ship a week

Harland and Wolff has built ships in peace and in war. During World War II it built 140 naval and 140 merchant vessels - an average of a ship every week.

In 1961, the P&O Canberra became the last cruise liner to be built and launched at the shipyard.

Oil rigs and vessels used in off-shore exploration have been a recent mainstay of the company.

The shipyard was once a flagship company
However, the yard has not been without controversy over the years.

At one time the workforce was overwhelmingly Protestant and even though some Catholics worked there, others felt it exemplified loyalist domination.

In recent years the UK Government has invested billions of pounds to keep the company afloat because of its central place in the Northern Ireland economy.

Earlier this year the yard issued redundancy notices to its entire workforce - but in reality its future has been under threat for some time.

Court case

In April 1999 it announced profits of 5m with a focus on building equipment for the oil exploration industry.

But just a few months later a dispute emerged with its only customer, US firm Global Marine, over who was responsible for covering the cost of extra work carried out on two vessels.

A recent court decision allowed Global Marine to take away a drill ship without making a final payment of 23m.

Harland and Wolff had said that the vessel was ready for delivery, but Global Marine refused to accept the ship and said it was not completed to their satisfaction.

The two companies are also involved in an ongoing row over a contract dispute involving nearly 100m. The dispute is to be settled by arbitration - but in the meantime the yard is running out of money.

Lost contracts

At the end of 1999 the former trade and enterprise minister, Sir Reg Empey, announced a 2.7m aid package to help the company win new orders.

But in March the company lost a 400m order to build the new Queen Mary II, a super liner planned by American cruise company Cunard.

Another major contract on which it was bidding went to a Korean shipyard while other Ministry of Defence contracts the firm hoped to win, may be several years away.

As a result the core shipbuilding workforce was cut to 1,000 through the redundancy of hundreds of workers Those remaining are now on a two- or three-day week.

In May the gloom lifted briefly with the signing of a 300m contract with a Norwegian firm to build four advanced roll-on-roll-off passenger vessels.

The yard also announced that it hoped to sign a contract with the Miami-based compnay Luxus to build two new luxery liners.

Redundancies expected

But by July Harland and Wolff's parent company Olsen Energy announced record losses of about 8m for the second quarter of the year, most of which it attributed to the shipyard.

Another major round of redundancies looks unavoidable as the company says it has no work to offer its employees until the new contracts begin.

Strangely, the doomed Titantic could be one element that helps the yard to survive.

South African millionnaire Sarel Gous has held talks with Harland and Wolff this summer about building a new version of the ill-fated liner.

He is said to be very committed to the 500m project, although no plans have been confirmed.

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See also:

09 Mar 00 | Northern Ireland
Shipyard workers in crisis meeting
29 Feb 00 | Northern Ireland
Shipyard hopeful on liner bid
15 Dec 99 | Northern Ireland
Shipyard gets 2.7m aid package
18 Nov 99 | Northern Ireland
Mitchell intervenes to help shipyard
28 Oct 99 | Northern Ireland
Cash lifeline for shipyard
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