The Rambler 24/01/2003
The tale of a shipyard, part two
WE had all become familiar with the wailings of air-raid sirens prior to the mid-April 1941 air raid on Belfast since test soundings had been going on for years.
But when the first 'alert' sounded, as we were busy getting cash-aid to survivors, we realised this one was real.
Quickly, we were re-assured by wardens that it was only a German fighter plane on reconnaissance. Thereafter, the sirens sounded 'Alert - all clear - alert - all clear' almost continuously and we paid no heed.
Then, an almighty thump close by caused the room-full of distraught survivors of the all-night blitz to rise from their seats in terror, but happily a shout went up.
"It's only the gable of McDevitts pub being levelled." And so it was. A dangerous multi-storied wall had been demolished.
At one stage I had to elbow my way from a room where the safe was to an empty one elsewhere and start paying-out shipyard workers who urgently needed cash to replace tools lost in the second, May 5, air raid... joiners mostly, two kinds, shop joiners and ship joiners.
I had my inside pocket stuffed with bank notes but there were no 'pick pockets' to fear.
At around 4pm hunger beat me and I had to take a break. I had a struggle to gain an exit and Billie Irwin's injunction was ringing in my ears "For God's sake don't be long".
There was devastation everywhere, with huge posters warning 'All water must be boiled' stuck on every pillar.
No place was open. Where could one get food? Fortunately, a small Italian cafe near St Patrick's Church at Donegall Street still had tea and a boiled egg. Boy did that taste sweet some nine hours of a fast from home (25 miles away by train)!
Next day, it was decided to stop dealing with claims for tools at Frederick Street office, and claimants had to be re-directed.
On the second day I, was recalled to Fermanagh House, Ormeau Avenue where shipyard workers were being seen. As I approached the entrance, where a long queue had formed, an armed warden challenged me.
Before I got time to respond, one guy in the queue leapt out. "Mister! Mister! You told me yesterday I would get paid over here. Can you get me in?"
The warden stepped aside.
"I think you'd better get your coat off quick," he quipped.
Inside, I was given a mini-mountain of claim forms and instructed to authorise payments. One perusal of these showed me they were useless.
Claimants had just signed a blank WD1 claim form and pinned a list of a complete kit of joiners' tools on to it. The lists were being churned out by a leading tool merchant.
Everything, including micrometers, were listed and priced. Claimants had not declared they had lost anything!
Of course I refused to authorise payments which annoyed the senior colleagues who were giving me orders, but I dug my heels in.
Next morning the 'top man' called me in. "X", he said "I want you to sit in with me, I am going to interview some of these joiners".
To cut a long story short, the first man challenged didn't know which side of a micrometer to look at, although he had alleged he had lost a full kit, including a micrometer.
More joiners claiming for complete tool kits turned out to be taking short cuts! That slowed down the processing business as claimants had to insert details of what tools they had lost on the WD I, and sign a declaration to that effect before any authorisation of payment was possible.
That particular "kettle of fish" resulted in my being promoted to Departmental Auditor, and I spent the next two years touring the departments' 15 area offices province-wide.
A quarter of a century later, in a different department, and wearing a different hat, I found myself checking the fluctuations in Harlands' employment figures. Brian Faulkner, as Minister, had to be briefed weekly.
Latterly, I paid a number of visits to the Yard, including the Chairman's office, escorting Trade Attaches from British Consulates and Embassies abroad whose missions were to promote our trade overseas.
As I remarked at the outset, it is sad to find the curtain coming down at Belfast shipyard.