Bombardier decision starkly exposes absence of executive at Stormont
Brexit may yet have a role to play in the search for a new owner
A Bombardier plant in Belfast. The company was once the largest private sector employer in the North. Photograph: Getty Images
Four thousand. It’s a big number when it comes to jobs. In the Republic, where the announcement of even 100 new jobs attracts the presence of Cabinet Ministers and local representatives of every hue, a threat to that number of positions would lead to mass political mobilisation.
Yet as Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier announced Thursday that it saw no future for its five Belfast factories there was little more than a gentle restatement of support for local jobs and the wider economy.
The Bombardier decision is significant, not least in illustrating the fragility of large private sector employment in the North.
The aerospace group has been a reliable presence in Belfast for 30 years since buying the hulk of the old Shorts Brothers business from the British government.For most of that time Belfast has been seen as a critical element of the company’s aviation division. The news that this was no longer the case came as a shock, even after recent restructurings.
It was once the largest private sector employer in the North, and despite a series of job cuts it remains among the highest. The 4,000 or so jobs may yet be safe if Bombardier can find a buyer for the plant – but that’s not a given.
While Brexit was not, in the end, a factor in the decision to sell the business, it may yet have a role to play in the eventual success or otherwise in the search for a new owner.
It was certainly a concern for Bombardier, which, before this decision, had warned both individually and with other industrials in an open letter to government of the threat it foresaw.
And, of course, continuing uncertainty over the eventual shape of a UK exit from the EU means that now is not the best time to try to persuade international big hitters in the aeroparts sector of the attraction of a sometimes troubled business in the often volatile aerospace sector.
The current uncertainty throws an unwelcome light on the reliance of a Northern Ireland economy, with a disproportionately large public sector, on a few big private sector employers to deliver economic growth and political peace.
Especially when, like Bombardier, those are increasingly international owners with choices about where to locate or expand their presence.
The absence of an executive at Stormont to make the case for jobs and for business investment, and to plan for the threats posed by Brexit, has never been more starkly exposed.