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New Harland and Wolff owners ‘hopeful’ shipyard can get back to work this week

Harland and Wolff workers listen to union officials from Unite and GMB during an occupation of the shipyard in Belfast in a campaign to save it. Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Harland and Wolff workers listen to union officials from Unite and GMB during an occupation of the shipyard in Belfast in a campaign to save it. Liam McBurney/PA Wire

The chief of the energy firm which acquired Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard says he is “hopeful” former employees can return to work this week.

The historic shipyard, famed for building Titanic, was placed into administration in the summer.

It faced an uncertain nine weeks before it was confirmed on Tuesday that Infrastrata had acquired it for £6 million.

Chief executive John Wood said they had been in negotiations to buy the company since August against what he described as “a lot of interest”.

The Scottish-born executive has a background in the Merchant Navy, during which time he served on the Harland and Wolff built SS Canberra, before moving into shipyards internationally and later holding senior posts in BAE systems.

Infrastrata is currently involved in an underground gas storage project at Islandmagee, Co Antrim, where it hopes to begin construction enabling works in the coming months.

Mr Wood described the shipyard as an “iconic asset steeped in history”.

“I think the thing that we bring to the table that perhaps others don’t is we have got the Islandmagee project locally and I’ve got experience in shipyards, fabrication, oil and gas and defence,” he told the PA news agency.

“You bring that all together it covers all eventualities that the future might throw at us.”

Mr Wood said he was glad to have retained the 79 Harland and Wolff workers, describing the image of them standing in the rain at the gates at 4am as “stuck in his head”.

The workers have staged a round the clock occupation of the site since it went into administration.

“I left for the airport one morning at 4am and they were all stood out there in the pouring rain and I have had that image stuck in my head since so I’m keen to get them back working in that shipyard as fast as we possibly can,” he said.

“I’m still hopeful for this week, whether we can get there or not we don’t know but we are still hopeful to make that happen.”

He revealed the occupation initially gave him a “bit of a fright”, but said he went on to become impressed by how willing they were to go “beyond the call of duty” to secure the future of the shipyard.

“I think if we can take all that energy and enthusiasm and take it into the strategy of the business moving forward, it really bodes well for the future,” he said.

Mr Wood said the Infrastrata’s primary focus is to bring “synergies” between the fabrication facility at the shipyard and the Islandmagee gas storage project.

In the longer term, he said he expects to see opportunities come from the renewable sector as well as the defence sector as well as ship repair and ship building.

“When opportunities come along, we’ll take a look at them, and make a decision as we move forward,” he said.

“But I think really capitalising initially on getting the skill-set built up, getting a new apprenticeship scheme under way so we’re not just building for the next year but really looking at this long term to ramp the workforce up and have that stability for the next generations coming through.

“I think as far as numbers go, by the time we get to 2025 getting up to 400 plus workers on the Harland and Wolff site, that’s in addition to the 400 odd we’ll have at peak construction period at Islandmagee gas storage, and then we’ll have 60 in operations during that project.

“We are talking a lot of jobs for the area, there’ll be a lot of secondary employment as well, so I think it’s all good.”

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