A DECISION by the British government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to sell off two of Northern Ireland's biggest state-owned firms has sent shock waves through the province's political and industrial establishment. The government has invited offers for Shorts, the leading international aerospace and aircraft manufacturers, and Harland and Wolff, the shipyard that built the ill-fated Titanic.
The government's move is in line with its policy of privatizing state-owned industries within the United Kingdom. But its critics argue that this could have an adverse effect on Northern Ireland, where unemployment is running at 16 percent. Harland and Wolff and Shorts employ roughly 11,000 people between them. But some government critics fear that in the worst scenario about 30,000 jobs could be affected, if the two firms' suppliers are taken into account.
Shorts has three major divisions - aircraft, aerostructures, and missiles. Northern Ireland Industry Minister Peter Viggers told the British House of Commons July 21 that if the government could not sell off the company as a whole, ministers would not rule out the sale of divisions to separate interests. Mr. Viggers said ``my statement follows the government's consistent approach throughout the United Kingdom of seeking to replace state ownership with the benefits ... that flow from effective private sector leadership.''
Other Members of Parliament were not so optimistic. Shadow Northern Ireland Minister Jim Marshall accused the government of seeking to shed itself of its responsibility ``to continued industrial and economic development in the north of Ireland.''
The reaction of Ulster MPs to the decision was scathing. Jim Kilfedder, a popular unionist, was particularly concerned that Shorts might be sold off in parts. ``The commercial vultures will come along, and when they have picked the bones clean they will go elsewhere.''
There is equal apprehension about the future of the shipyard, which is one of the best-equipped in Britain. Harland and Wolff has the possibility of a major order from an Indian magnate, Ravi Tikoo, to build a most advanced cruise liner. (Belfast residents have already dubbed this ``The Ultimate Dream.'') The major snag is that the shipyard needs a subsidy from the government - a subsidy that is not, as yet, forthcoming.
The government, for its part, has been talking to Mr. Tikoo with a view to selling off the yard itself. This prompted one trade union leader to liken Tikoo to a potential automobile customer who is being asked to buy not just the vehicle but the entire car-producing company as well.
Inevitably, the government's announcement has prompted accusations that this is part of a ``British economic withdrawal from Northern Ireland.'' Tony Benn, the fiery left-winger of the Labour Party, said as much in the House of Commons.
But Viggers dismissed this analysis as below that of ``a moderately intelligent 10-year-old.'' Nevertheless, the suspicion of a possible British betrayal lingers among loyalists, who favor the link with Britain. This is so even though the government recently announced the infusion of large sums into deprived sectors of the province including loyalist areas.
Ironically, fears about the destabilizing effect of job losses in Belfast have been voiced in the Irish Republic. A leading Dublin newspaper has urged the Irish government to use the Anglo-Irish Conference as a means of impressing on Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers the implications of an even greater economic depression in Northern Ireland.