A rescue package to save troubled Belfast shipyard Harland and Wolff from closure today appeared to be edging towards government approval.
Northern Ireland regional development minister Peter Robinson has told his Stormont Assembly committee that he had ‘‘agreed in principle’’ to the shipyard selling part of its land for non-shipbuilding redevelopment.
The yard would use part of the money raised from the redesignation and redevelopment of 78 areas of its leased land to finance restructuring which is essential if the historic but cash-strapped shipyard is to avoid closure.
Agreement by Mr Robinson for the sale of the land and backing for the business plan by Enterprise, Trade and Development Minister Sir Reg Empey is needed before the Assembly Executive can give the green light to the change of land.
But Sir Reg said today that despite Mr Robinson’s comments they were ‘‘a long way from a deal’’ and he did not want to raise the hopes of workers only to dash them.
Mr Robinson told his committee last night the land deal was in the public interest.
Sir Reg said there was still much to be done, but stressed no public money was involved in the plan.
’’I am not saying this is an entirely viable plan and it will work. All we have been asked to say is that strategically it is moving in the right direction.’’
He pointed out: ‘‘If the company was going to fold today we are still going to have to address the land issue. This debate could be taking place even if there was no shipyard.’’
The minister added: ‘‘The question is do we do this now with the prospect of the company surviving and jobs remaining down there, or do we let the company go and still have to do this in a year’s time anyway.’’
Any change of use of the land would have to involve a major industrial element, he said. It would have to be mixed use to make it viable ‘‘but if you think I would wish to see the whole area covered in apartments, I most certainly would not.
’’I don’t think the general public would tolerate that.’’
Even without the 78 acres the shipyard would still retain enough space for shipbuilding.
It was announced yesterday that Harland and Wolff is in a consortium with French defence company Thales which is bidding for an MOD contract for two aircraft carriers which it would have built in sections at a number of yards, including Belfast.
Sir Reg said he had been assured the business plan would allow for the contract to be handled if won.
The Democratic Unionist East Belfast Assembly member Sammy Wilson urged the ministers to go ahead with the land deal and business plan.
’’It is a case of do you release the land and save some jobs or do you do a deal when the jobs have gone and you have to put the land to some use,’’ he said.
But Progressive Unionist east Belfast member David Ervine said it was time to stop being sentimental about the yard and let it close if it was no longer viable.