By David Young and Rebecca Black, PA
The UK Government has been urged to support the unpaid workforce at the closure-threatened Harland and Wolff shipyard while potential rescue bids are firmed up.
Trade unions have called for a temporary renationalisation of the Belfast business to provide breathing space for the under-pressure workers while several commercial offers are explored.
Davy Thompson, regional co-ordinator at the Unite union, urged Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith to facilitate the "bridging" support during a meeting at Belfast City Hall.
The meeting came hours after the yard's administrators announced several non-binding offers have been tabled for the historic manufacturer.
BDO Northern Ireland said there had been a "healthy level of interest" in taking over the business and predicted other offers may also emerge.
The administrators said they were extending a temporary unpaid layoff of the workforce until September 30 to explore the various rescue deal options.
While the workers are no longer getting paid, the layoff means their contracts of employment remain unbroken.
The meeting involving union representatives, Mr Smith, city councillors and representatives from Government business support agency Invest NI took place as workers held a rally at the gates of Harland and Wolff in the east of the city.
After the discussions at City Hall, Mr Thompson told the PA news agency: "Our message was clear.
"These people are sitting down there on long-term layoff, they aren't being paid and the Government now needs to step in to do something - even if that is a bridging renationalisation-type position they take until a bidder comes in and we get down to the preferred bidders and get the company sold, then we believe that is what they need to be doing.
"I know the Government doesn't like using the word renationalisation, I don't care what they call it, they can call it a bridging position, whatever they wish to call it, but we believe they need to get those people back in and being productive on the ground and let's hope they get it sold as a going concern - something we are very positive will happen, we are just waiting for concrete bids to come in now."
The Government has resisted calls for direct intervention at Harland and Wolff, claiming its troubles are a commercial issue.
🎥 Harland and Wolff shipyard worker and union member Joe Passmore says “we’re here for the long run, we want to work with a new buyer so that our shipyard is here for generations not years” @Joe63ni @UniteunionNI pic.twitter.com/G064XECsV2— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) August 23, 2019
Ahead of the meeting on Friday, Mr Smith restated that position but added the UK Government would do whatever it could to ensure there was a successful outcome to the efforts to find a buyer.
"I am quietly optimistic that there seem to be a good number of people that see the skills available at Harland and Wolff and see the opportunity that is there and the Government will support in any way we can," he said.
"I realise for workers at the moment who are at still on contract but not being paid it is a very, very difficult time but I hope that if we move things on we can resolve that as quickly as possible."
Famed for building the Titanic, the shipyard went into administration earlier this month after its troubled Norwegian parent company, Dolphin Drilling, failed to find a buyer.
The shipyard workers have occupied the site round the clock for nearly four weeks as part of a high-profile campaign to save their jobs.
On Friday morning, accountancy firm BDO NI said: "There has been a healthy level of interest with regard to purchasing the business, assets and safeguarding the existing jobs since the commencement of the administration process.
"This has resulted in a number of non-binding offers for the business, assets and employees on a going concern basis.
"There are also other interested parties who are in constructive discussions with the administrators which may result in further offers."
It added: "The administrators, along with the unions and employees, have extended the unpaid temporary layoff position beyond the August 16 2019 to September 30 2019 to allow additional time to seek to complete a sale of the business.
"The administrators and the limited retained team of workers at Harland and Wolff will continue to work with all interested parties and bidders as they undertake further financial and legal due diligence work in the coming weeks as every effort is made to secure a going concern sale."
The shipbuilder, whose famous yellow cranes Samson and Goliath dominate the Belfast skyline, employed more than 30,000 people during the city's industrial heyday but the workforce numbered only around 125 when the company went into administration.
The business had diversified away from shipbuilding in the last two decades and until recently had primarily worked on wind energy and marine engineering projects.
🎥 Crowds have gathered at the gates of Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast to protest against the iconic site’s closure. They enjoy Newry singer Tommy Sands’ original song “Stand by each other once again” written for the workers: pic.twitter.com/SNBIiawVLi— Q Radio News (@qnewsdesk) August 23, 2019
Known around the world for building the doomed White Star liner Titanic, which sank on her maiden transatlantic voyage in 1912 after striking an iceberg, Harland and Wolff was one of the UK's key industrial producers during the Second World War, supplying almost 150 warships.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been urged to follow the lead of the Scottish Government, which has intervened to save the Ferguson Marine shipbuilding yard in Glasgow.
At the rally on Friday, scores of trade unionists and workers turned out to show their solidarity with the campaign to save Harland and Wolff.
They heard from speakers including Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, and Alex Rogan, the GMB convener at Ferguson Marine.
Newry singer-songwriter Tommy Sands received cheers as he returned to the shipyard to sing a song he wrote in support of the efforts.
Steel worker Joe Passmore told the rally: "Don't underestimate us, if you poke the hornets' nest and you keep poking it, sooner or later those hornets are all going to gather together and are going to strike back and that is exactly what has happened here.
"We have said enough is enough, you are not going to treat us like nobodies anymore, we are not going to be your short-term profit.
"We are going to stand at this gate and we are not going to move away from this gate until the people that we want to run our shipyard are in control of our shipyard, whatever it takes and we'll stay there for as long as it takes.
"We are not finished yet, this shipyard has a long, long history, we are very proud of that long, long history and if someone out there thinks that they can easily take that away from Belfast, take it away from this community and take it away from these workers, think again because we are here for as long as it takes."