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Belfast shipyard closure

One-eyed nostalgia blocks a vision for the workers future.

8 August 2019

On Tuesday the 6th of August Receivers served papers marking the closure of Harland and Wolff, the Belfast Shipyard.

The event and an occupation by the remaining workforce sparked a wave of nostalgia. Local media was dominated by the news, a special sitting of Belfast City Council was called and local political parties flocked to the support of the workers. Desperate attempts were made by the unions to present an economic alternative for the yard. Unfortunately the nostalgia marked a one-eyed view of the past while the alternative proposals fell short of a clear-eyed view of the future.

The nostalgia was used to praise the role of the shipyard in the past as a source of a mass pool of skilled workers. No references were made to its key role in building an aristocracy of labour under Unionist control and as a pivot for sectarianism in the northern state. A veil of silence was drawn over the mass pogrom of the 1920s which expelled Catholic workers and socialists from the shipyard and also the role of loyalists within the shipyard in managing the revolt against a power sharing administration in the mid 70s.. This one eyed nostalgia is important because any perspective for a way forward and for working class unity would require a repudiation of that past.

The crisis provoked a 180 degree turn by the union leadership but not the 20-20 vision needed to provide a way forward. In the past, in fact as recently as a few weeks ago with job cuts at Bombardier, the nostrum was a call for the return of Stormont. The sheer unlikelihood of the setting up of a local administration or the argument that that administration could do anything progressive for the workers quickly muffled that call.

The new call for nationalisation of the yard was a reasonable demand. It is perfectly reasonable, where government will not supply jobs, to demand that they step in. The extent to which the unions are serious in advancing this call has to be doubted. After all, mass privatisation and outsourcing of public services is happening all around us with the acquiescence of the Union leadership (Belfast City Council, which organised the solidarity debate, is heavily involved in outsourcing of services to the private sector). The idea that Boris and the Brexiteers will provide a nationalisation programme is just as fanciful as the return of Stormont.

In addition, the call for nationalisation opens up other political issues. Are the workers to be paid an enhanced dole for doing nothing, or is there an alternative role for the shipyard? In actual fact there is a silent alternative, not mentioned because it night reduce support. The hope was that if the yard could hold on a few months it might qualify for the building of a new royal Naval warship. Socialists might well prefer a dole which simply burnt money rather than one that helped construct materials for a new war in the Middle East.

So what alternative is there? The yard has already been involved in the construction and repair of wind turbines and the local university has a great deal of expertise in wave turbines. There is clearly a great deal of space for industrial development in the areas of renewable energy. In addition, a new generation of commercial intelligent seacraft are being developed and the shipyard is as well placed as anywhere else to develop these given sufficient research investment. However even at an initial stage this would have to be part of an All-Ireland initiative as the first step to inserting into a global supply chain. Hanging on to the fag end of a decaying empire is not a sustainable option.

The trade unions are they only bodies with any authority that could advance an alternative for the workers. They took one step down that path by demand a nationalisation but there are many more steps to be taken. New steps would require a political programme and a political party for the working class, something that the trade unions have always refused to endorse since the collapse of their half-hearted support for the Northern Ireland Labour Party in the 1960s. The East Belfast constituency in which the shipyard sits is a stronghold of the Democratic Unionist Party and political discourse in both Britain and Ireland is of the overwhelming power that the DUP has over the Tories.

Unsurprisingly the alliance of two far right parties does not lead to any defence of the working class. The unions are now amplifying threats from the workforce to stand a candidate against the DUP in the next election. However it's not the first time that unionist workers have been shafted by the bosses and electoral protest and revolt never come to anything. Genuine revolt would involve stepping outside unionism and the sectarian and pro-imperialist mindset it engenders.

It would also require stepping outside the current cosy settlement imposed by Britain and accepted by Irish nationalism. The nostalgic solidarity offered by the unions and reformist left from inside the tent does no favours to the shipyard workers or to the working class as a whole.

We have bombast rather than a genuine alternative to closure and redundancy. A voice for the workers is more urgently needed.

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