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Prospects bleak at a proud yard

The Gardyloo and The Flying Spray are two ships that might be said to have different versions of the same name.

They have something else in common, too - both were built at Ferguson's Shipyard. Like the tug Flying Spray, the notorious Gardyloo - now registered in Baku, Azerbaijan - is still in service, decades later. During its proud 111-year history, the yard has built these modest vessels as well as cruisers, ferries, research vessels and supply ships.

But that proud story appears to have come to an end, with 70 workers at the last remaining commercial shipyard on the lower Clyde having learned they are to lose their jobs and the yard is to close. Ferguson, founded in 1903, is now in receivership, and while a skeleton staff of seven will be kept on as receivers look for a buyer, the prospects look bleak. An empty order book and cash-flow problems have led to the closure, although workers say there had been no hint that receivership was on the horizon.

The loss of key contracts and tenders has cost the yard dear, notably a decision by the then Scottish Executive in 2005 to award the tender for two ships to a shipyard in Gdansk.

Ferguson's protests at the time were dismissed for lack of evidence. But a four-year investigation of three other Polish shipyards already under way eventually concluded they had been unfairly subsidised.

The subsidies were ordered to be repaid, with the yards effectively forced to privatise. That was little consolation then and will be even less so now for the workers, still shocked at their employer's sudden collapse.

The Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions (CSEU) has demanded action from First Minister Alex Salmond. The Scottish Government has the opportunity to demonstrate it can protect shipbuilding in the run-up to the independence referendum, the union says. However, it should be noted that the CSEU is allied to the GMB union, which is itself allied to the Better Together campaign.

Referendum politics aside, clearly ministers will wish to do all they can to help the company. The Scottish Government and Inverclyde Council are to collaborate on a taskforce to look at what can be done to save the business or help the workforce find alternative employment. But while the yard has developed a niche in recent years building specialist smaller ships, it is a challenging area in which to work.

Big enough to need large contracts, such as the recent multi-million pound order to deliver two world-first diesel hybrid ferries, the yard is, however, not large or strategically important enough to have benefited from the massive MoD orders that help sustain BAe systems on the Clyde.

There is an urgent need for ministers to look at whether any public orders can be brought forward to help out the yard.

Finance Secretary John Swinney has talked of the yard's expertise and the experience of its workforce as significant assets. But protecting those assets will depend on finding a buyer and finding one soon.

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