Bombardier, the global aerospace group which employs 4,000 people in the North, is to sell off its entire operations in Northern Ireland.
The Canadian group announced on Thursday that it plans to sell its factories in Northern Ireland and Morocco as part of a strategy to consolidate "all aerospace assets into a single, streamlined and fully integrated business".
Bombardier said it plans to focus all of its aerospace business in Montréal, Mexico and a recently acquired operation in Texas.
The company had previously warned of "serious consequences" from a hard Brexit for its operations in Belfast. However, there was no mention of Brexit in Thursday's statement.
The decision will be seen by unions and political leaders in the North as a massive blow for the economy and will cast serious doubts over the future security of the 4,000 jobs at Bombardier and thousands more in their extensive supply chain in the North.
The trade union Unite said Bombardier’s surprise announcement over the future of its Belfast plant would come as a shock to its entire workforce who today are questioning “the long term-future of their jobs”.
Jackie Pollock, Unite regional secretary in Ireland, said: “Unite will be seeking assurances from Bombardier and the government around this process. It doesn’t matter whose name is above the gate: what matters is that we safeguard jobs and skills in this critical industry. The UK government must stand ready to ensure the retention of jobs and skills at these sites, Bombardier is simply too important to the Northern Ireland economy to allow anything less.
In a statement released by Bombardier Belfast, the organisation said that both the Belfast and Morocco factories had seen “a significant increase in work from other global customers in recent years”, and that its Canadian parent was “committed to finding the right buyer – one that will operate responsibly and help us achieve our full growth potential”.
The Canadian company has been present in Northern Ireland since 1989, when it bought Shorts, one of the oldest names in aviation. The plant makes wings for what was previously called the C-series jet, which was a huge cash drain on Bombardier. The troubled programme was bailed out by Airbus, which took a 50.01 per cent controlling stake in the project in 2017. It has since been renamed the Airbus A220.
The Belfast operation is also responsible for the design and manufacture of large components for some of Bombardier’s business jets, including parts of the fuselage for its range of Learjet, Challenger and Global families of aircraft
“We understand that this announcement may cause concern among our employees, but we will be working closely with them and our unions as matters progress, and through any future transition period to a new owner,” Bombardier’s Belfast management said.
The Belfast leadership team said that, while there would be “no new workforce announcements as a result of this decision”, it did not appear to rule out future job losses.
“Our management team will continue to drive ongoing transformation initiatives to improve productivity and increase our competitiveness, to give more weight to our unique value proposition to potential buyers.”
"It is the right next step in our transformation," the group's chief executive, Alain Bellemare, said. "The consolidation will simplify and better focus our organisation on our leading brands – Global, Challenger, Learjet and the CRJ.
“With our clear vision for the future of Bombardier Aviation, we will focus our aerostructures activities around our core capabilities in Montréal, Mexico and our newly acquired Global 7500 wing operations in Texas,” he said, adding that these plants gave the company “all the skills, technologies and capabilities to design, produce and service the current and next generation of aircraft”.
“As the company moves to optimise its global manufacturing footprint, Bombardier will pursue the divestiture of the Belfast and Morocco aerostructures businesses,” Mr Bellemare said. “These are great businesses with tremendous capabilities.”
Bombardier’s employment numbers in Northern Ireland have halved since 2014, according to trade union Unite.
Earlier this week, Bombardier suspended compulsory redundancies at its Northern Ireland plants and reinstated 32 workers who had already lost their jobs as part of the Canadian group’s ongoing global restructuring programme.
Unite and the GMB union had been scheduled to ballot workers on Monday about potential strike action over the group’s redundancy proposals.
At the time, a company spokeswoman said: “We are happy to have come to a resolution with our union, and we are pleased to confirm that we will continue to engage in dialogue with them on our competitiveness.”
Unite’s Mr Pollock said: “Bombardier workers in Northern Ireland are among the most highly-skilled workers in the sector globally. We produce a world class product here with a world-class workforce. Whoever the buyer is there’s an undeniable case for investment to not only sustain but expand production and employment into the future.”
Bombardier also released its first quarter results on Thursday which showed adjusted Ebitda and adjusted Ebit were $266 million and $171 million, while revenues fell year on year to $3.5 billion. – Additional reporting Financial Times Limited 2019