The naming of a consortium as the preferred bidder for a £1.3 billion Royal Navy contract has been welcomed as a “boon” to an under-threat shipyard in Belfast.

The consortium, led by engineering giant Babcock and including the Harland and Wolff shipyard, is expected to be formally awarded the contract later this financial year.

The five ships will be assembled at its Rosyth Dockyard in Scotland and will involve supply chains throughout the UK.

Harland and Wolff shipyard campaign
Harland and Wolff workers and supporters have been campaigning to save the historic Belfast shipyard (Brian Lawless/PA)

Harland and Wolff supporters said the contract would sustain five to six years of work at Belfast shipyard through steel fabrication work alone.

The historic shipyard – best known for building the Titanic – entered administration in August, with accountancy firm BDO overseeing the process.

The move placed 120 jobs at risk.

Workers have been staging a round the clock occupation of the site in a campaign to save it.

A union leader involved with the campaign welcomed the contract development.

Harland and Wolff shipyard in administration
Susan Fitzgerald, regional organiser for Unite (Liam McBurney/PA)

Unite regional co-ordinating officer Susan Fitzgerald said the news “highlights that the shipyard in Belfast has a future as a viable shipbuilder”.

“Just weeks ago politicians including the British Government had written off this yard, saying it had no future,” she said.

“Through their courageous stand the workforce at Harland and Wolff have held open the door for the company to participate in this work  – they have kept this shipyard in the game.

“The opportunity exists to bring this work to Belfast providing at least five to six years of work in steel fabrication onsite alone.”

She added: “We now need to see urgent intervention by government to get our members back to work.

“There is a clear programme of work for the company into the future – all that is needed is the political will to safeguard a future for this shipyard.”

Harland and Wolff shipyard in administration
DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson (Michael McHugh/PA)

East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson also welcomed the news, describing it as a “boon” for the workforce.

“With the work on these frigates due to begin by the end of 2019 it should also mean that the benefits can be felt locally within a relatively short time frame and last for five to six years,” he said.

“Orders such as this also highlight the wider importance of defence contracts.

“These are particularly important for east Belfast, with 27 companies based in the constituency that are part of the aerospace, defence and security Industry.

“As the administration process within Harland & Wolff continues and does so positively, this announcement will be a huge boon for the workforce who have admirably and steadfastly stood with the yard; knowing the potential that lies ahead.

“This is not the end of the road, however, and I will continue to support Harland & Wolff in any way possible as it seeks to grow its presence in the markets of the future and ensure the long-term success of the yard.”

Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey added his welcome but sounded a note of caution.

“Naturally I am delighted that this news places H&W back at the centre of UK shipbuilding … however, a lot will depend on who the administrators choose to sell the shipyard to,” he said.

“It may be that a bidder is only interested in the outfitting quay and can dispose of some of the land.

“Nevertheless, should a bidder be really interested in steel fabrication etc, the news is good.”

He added: “While the Royal Navy is likely to order five of these vessels, they have been designed to attract export orders from around the world.

“This has not always been the case with previous ships but being able to sell more vessels potentially lowers the unit cost for the Navy.”