Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyard, once so symbolic of the North’s industry and division, has finally closed.
The yard, once the world’s largest builders of grand ocean liners, including the Titanic, was first thrown a lifeline by the British exchequer over 50 years ago. Less than a decade later, in 1975, it was nationalised.
Subsequently, in 1989, it was bought out by a management/employee consortium. None of these initiatives succeeded. Some estimates suggest the yard has received over €1.08bn in state aid since it returned to private hands. It once employed 35,000. Today, that figure is 120.
Speaking at Belfast’s Féile an Phobail, Labour’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, called on British prime minister Boris Johnson to nationalise H&W. That is as unlikely as the Titanic rising from its watery grave. H&W’s journey has come to an end.
The yard, once a hotbed of sectarianism and, unofficially, gunmakers for Loyalists terrorists, offers a valuable lesson as so many voices press for a border poll in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The most significant is the one that shows how dependent the North’s economy— the jobs that sustain it — still is on state aid. Around one in three Northern Irish jobs are in the public service; many more depend indirectly on state aid.
The OECD average is one in five.
Should a poll endorse a united Ireland, this suggests a huge change in the allocation of public funds, change so traumatic it would be very hard to sell.