John Tollerton’s grandfather was among thousands of men who helped build the Titanic at Harland and Wolff’s Belfast shipyard.
A century later, Mr. Tollerton is the fifth – and possibly final – generation of his family to work for the company.
“I’m the last of a dying breed,” says the 59-year-old. “My son had more sense than to go into the shipyards.”
Yet, as the world prepares to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking on Sunday, Harland and Wolff is trying to make a fresh start.
The company is at the heart of a broader push by Belfast to establish a foothold in the growing green energy sector to fill the gap left by the decline of shipbuilding and other traditional industries.
Facing the threat of closing in the early part of last decade, Harland and Wolff made thousands of workers redundant and began manufacturing wind turbines. It has since returned to profit and attracted other renewable power companies, including Dong Energy of Denmark, to Belfast harbour.
Under the bright yellow gantry cranes Samson and Goliath, which dominate the city’s skyline, a few hundred Harland and Wolff welders and fitters are currently working on two gigantic 1,500-tonne Siemens electricity transformers for an offshore wind farm.
“I think the shipyard is once again becoming the kernel for a new period of innovation in Belfast,” says David McVeigh, Harland and Wolff’s sales manager.
Belfast harbour has played a critical role in the city’s development since the shipyard was founded in 1861 by Edward Harland and Gustav Wilhelm Wolff. Its success in the late 19th century inspired scores of spin-off industries, pushing Belfast to overtake Dublin briefly as the biggest city in Ireland at the turn of the century.
“In 1900 Belfast port was the third biggest in the U.K., behind London and Liverpool. The city also hosted the biggest shipyard, dry dock, rope works and linen mill in the world,” says Jonathan Bardon, professor of history at Queens University Belfast.
Belfast’s pre-eminence did not last long. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 led to the decline of the White Star Line, causing the shipyard and port to struggle. That same year the tabling of the third Home Rule bill, which proposed a form of self-governance for Ireland, heightened sectarian tensions leading to purges of Catholics from the shipyard. The “troubles” of the 1960s later ushered in 30 years of bloodshed, crippling the Northern Ireland economy.
“The legacy of the violence is an unhealthy dependence on the public sector, which employs 30 per cent of workers in Northern Ireland and accounts for 65-75 per cent of economic output,” says Esmond Birnie, economist at PwC.
Evidence of urban decay is clearly visible in east Belfast. A mile from the shipyard, scores of shop fronts are boarded up and sectarian wall murals have returned following rioting last year.
“When the shipyard got into financial trouble and let thousands of people go, it had a big impact on this area. There are no jobs for young people,” says George Gorman, who was made redundant in the late 1990s after 30 years with Harland and Wolff.
But green energy success is providing hope for the future – even if the number of jobs involved is much smaller than in Harland and Wolff’s heyday. This year the company recruited seven apprentices – its largest intake in years.
“Belfast is well on the way to becoming a green energy hub, which can support thousands of jobs,” says Len O’Hagan, chairman of Belfast Harbour. “Anything is possible here.”
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