Bombardier presses DUP to back May’s Brexit deal

Aerospace CEO: ‘there are plenty of countries out there who would love to build the wings for Airbus’

UK prime minister Theresa May speaks to a worker during a visit to the Bombardier factory in Belfast last year. The aerospace group is putting pressure on the DUP to drop oposition to Mrs May’s Brexit deal. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/PA Wire

UK prime minister Theresa May speaks to a worker during a visit to the Bombardier factory in Belfast last year. The aerospace group is putting pressure on the DUP to drop oposition to Mrs May’s Brexit deal. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/PA Wire

 

Bombardier, the most important employer in the Unionist strongholds of Northern Ireland, is putting pressure on the Democratic Unionist party to drop its objections to Theresa May’s Brexit deal as a critical vote in Westminster nears.

The Canadian aircraft manufacturer, which employs almost 4,000 people at four separate Belfast factories, has kept a relatively low public profile over Brexit compared to other UK-based manufacturers.

But the increasing threat of Britain leaving without a deal has prompted Bombardier to warn the DUP – which has fiercely criticised Mrs May’s deal in the past – of the serious consequences on its Northern Ireland operations of a hard exit, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The behind-the-scenes intervention adds to mounting business pressure on the DUP, whose 10 MPs will play a pivotal role in determining whether the UK prime minister will secure a majority for the Brexit deal in a potentially decisive showdown in the House of Commons. The vote is set to be held by next Tuesday, March 12th, little more than a fortnight before Britain’s scheduled March 29th exit from the EU.

The head of Northern Ireland’s civil service has separately warned political parties of the “grave” consequences for the region from a no-deal Brexit, including a “sharp increase in unemployment”, a reduced choice of fresh food, and the risk of social unrest.

“The consequences of material business failure as a result of a ‘no-deal’ exit, combined with changes to everyday life and potential Border frictions could well have a profound and long lasting impact on society,” David Sterling wrote in a letter seen by the Financial Times.

Arlene Foster

Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, and other senior party figures have recently softened their most trenchant criticisms of the contentious “backstop” in Mrs May’s EU exit agreement, which aims to prevent a UK hard border with Ireland.

The DUP opposes provisions in the backstop that would treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, while many Eurosceptic Conservatives say it could “trap” the UK in a customs union with Brussels.

Downing Street hopes that additional legal assurances over the “temporary” nature of the arrangements may be enough to swing the DUP behind the deal, bringing with them many Conservative MPs who initially voted against the Brexit package.

But talks with Brussels to agree such revisions have proved difficult, according to EU diplomats. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, and British ministers including Geoffrey Cox, the attorney general, ended a dinner on Tuesday without a breakthrough or public statement.

One person briefed on the discussions said they were “not easy”, with some of Mr Cox’s ideas to provide a clear exit route from the backstop being flatly rejected by the Brussels side.

One DUP official emphasised the party wanted to see a deal. “Ireland is terrified of a no-deal and we are not in the no-deal camp,” the official said. But the DUP has not yet made any public commitment to support Mrs May’s agreement.

Bombardier became the biggest manufacturer in Northern Ireland with the 1989 acquisition of Short Brothers, a pioneering aerospace group whose workforce was heavily drawn from the DUP strongholds of east Belfast. The company has retained an outsized influence on the region’s economy and political class.

“Bombardier are strategically important for Northern Ireland, not just in terms of their jobs but also that they account for approximately 10 per cent of Northern Ireland exports and their supply chain, which stretches from the north-west to north Down [to the east],” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, an industry group that includes Bombardier and many of its suppliers.

“The leadership of the company were clear before the referendum that Brexit would add significant cost and complexity to their business and, whatever the outcome from the current negotiations, it is critical that the UK negotiates to remove those costs and complexities and to ensure market access for firms just like Bombardier.”

Supplies Airbus

Bombardier’s east Belfast plant supplies wings to the Airbus A220, an arrangement that relies on frictionless EU supply chains and the bloc’s trade deals around the world. The jet, previously known as the Bombardier C Series, is highly regarded for fuel-efficiency but struggled to secure orders. Airbus acquired a majority stake in it last year.

In November Bombardier announced it was cutting 490 jobs from its Northern Ireland operations in an effort to reduce costs.

Bombardier declined to comment regarding discussions with the DUP. Earlier this year Tom Enders, Airbus chief executive, said it was “a disgrace” that companies were still unable to plan for Brexit. “Make no mistake there are plenty of countries out there who would love to build the wings for Airbus aircraft,” he added.

Trevor Lockhart, Northern Ireland chairman of the CBI business lobby group, said he was not aware of any Bombardier interventions but added that business had been making the case for Mrs May’s deal.

“I have stood on platforms and encouraged business to make their MPs aware of the dangers presented by a no-deal and the importance of them [the MPs] acting in the national interest in the next couple of weeks in these critical votes,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019