Bombardier workers ‘stunned and shocked’ as worst fears come to pass

‘Sense of betrayal’ as Canadian aerospace group jettisons its Belfast operation

There have been serious fears about Bombardier and the future of its five production sites in the North since the Canadian group announced a global restructuring programme last November. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

There have been serious fears about Bombardier and the future of its five production sites in the North since the Canadian group announced a global restructuring programme last November. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

“Stunned and shocked” was the first reaction on the factory floor in Bombardier Belfast to the announcement that its Canadian parent intends to sell up and leave Northern Ireland.

Later came the worry about what the future might hold for Bombardier’s remaining core workforce of 3,600 people – with another 400 seasonal workers – who have already survived what appeared to be a never-ending round of job cuts over the last five years.

There have been serious fears about Bombardier and the future of its five production sites in the North since the Canadian group announced a global restructuring programme last November, which would result in 5,000 redundancies.

Belfast was earmarked for nearly 500 of these. While it was, as the trade union Unite described it, “a heavy blow”, it allayed fears that the outcome could have been much worse.

Bombardier, once the North’s largest private sector employer, is as integral a part of Belfast as the giant yellow cranes of Harland & Wolff that dominate the city’s landscape. The Canadian aerospace group has had a major presence in the city since it acquired what was then Short Brothers from the UK government in 1989.

Supply chain

Aside from its direct workforce, Bombardier, which accounts for at least 10 per cent of the North’s total annual manufacturing exports, also has a significant supply chain in Northern Ireland that supports thousands of additional jobs.

According to Bombardier Belfast’s statistics, it has a European chain totalling around 900 approved suppliers. Out of these, the company says 800 are based in Britain and Ireland.

In 2017, the value of contracts awarded to these firms was around £200 million. At least 50 companies supply Bombardier with components for the A220 aircraft (previously known as the C-Series) alone.

Bombardier, once the North’s largest private sector employer, has been an integral part of Belfast since it acquired what was then Short Brothers from the UK government in 1989. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Bombardier, once the North’s largest private sector employer, has been an integral part of Belfast since it acquired what was then Short Brothers from the UK government in 1989. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

Bombardier’s Northern Ireland operations have in the past been seen as a core part of the Canadian group’s global business – it has significant “partnership roles” in all of its family of aircraft.

But Bombardier Belfast has more than 50 years’ experience in the design, development, manufacture and support of aircraft engine nacelles, and it also supplies components to other major aircraft manufacturers. This includes nose cowls, fan cowl doors, aprons and engine build unit (EBU) systems for Rolls-Royce Deutschland BR710 engines, nose cowls for Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines, and nose cowls, fan cowl doors and EBU systems for International Aero Engines’ V2500 powerplant.

Turbulent years

The Belfast plant is also designing and manufacturing the complete engine nacelles, including thrust reversers, for the Russian group Irkut’s new MC-21 family of aircraft, and developing and manufacturing the thrust reverser for a new nacelle on the Pratt & Whitney-powered A320 aircraft family for Airbus.

The decision to offload the Belfast operation throws into question what its relationship and potential order book with its current Canadian parent could look like in the future. Despite the last few turbulent years, no one expected quite such a hard landing for the Canadian group’s Irish business.

Back in 2008, Bombardier appeared to signal that it intended to remain in the North for the long haul. It chose to locate a new factory in Belfast to design and manufacture the wings for the C-Series (now the A220) planes which, at the time, Bombardier claimed would one day be the “most efficient aircraft in the skies”.

The £520 million factory represented the single largest inward investment ever secured by the North and was heralded at the time by political leaders as a major vote of confidence by the parent company in its local operations.

Last year, the local workforce, together with the trade union Unite, campaigned at length in support of the Canadian group as it battled to overturn a decision by the US commerce department to impose what would have been a crippling 292 per cent tariff on the sale of every C-Series aircraft in the United States.

Sense of betrayal

When Bombardier won its case, it was seen not just as a victory for the aerospace giant but for the 1,000 workers in Belfast who work on the wing-production lines for the aircraft.

That’s why, according to Susan Fitzgerald, Unite’s regional co-ordinating officer, many Bombardier workers will feel a “sense of betrayal” at Bombardier’s decision to jettison its Northern Ireland workforce.

The company was reported to be putting pressure on the DUP to drop its objections to Theresa May’s Brexit deal

“The reality is that there has been huge uncertainty about what Bombardier was planning to do in Northern Ireland. Every day people have been going into work expecting another announcement.”

The company, which is the most important employer in the Unionist strongholds of Northern Ireland, was reported in March to be putting pressure on the DUP to drop its objections to Theresa May’s Brexit deal ahead of a critical vote in Westminster.

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

Bombardier was subsequently one of more than 50 leading Northern Ireland companies to sign an open letter to British MPs warning of the threat to the North’s “political stability” and economy in the event of a no-deal Brexit, warning that companies would be “hugely exposed to the economic fallout from leaving the EU with no deal”.

“So this is a shock,” Fitzgerald said, “but Bombardier workers have been worried for a long time about what might happen.

“The workforce has always gone to bat for this company, they have always supported Bombardier, but we still have a workforce today that has halved since 2014.”

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