Hydrogen entrepreneur Jo Bamford has agreed "in principle" to rescue the Wrightbus factory in Ballymena from liquidation. Some 1,200 jobs have hung in the balance since the facility went into administration last month, with a rescue deal in considerable doubt until Friday.
Mr Bamford has not confirmed any details on jobs that might be saved as a result of his agreement with administrators from Deloitte. No financial details have emerged.
Union leaders said despite the relief that a deal was in progress to save the group, fears remain about the jobs that have been lost.
Unite’s regional officer, George Brash, said: “We are concerned about how many people will be going back to work – we want as many as possible but first we have to get this deal over the line.
Mr Bamford’s company has reached an agreement with Jeff Wright, the son of the founder of Wrightbus, who controls the investment property company that owned the bus manufacturing facility in Ballymena.
Mr Bamford’s company will acquire the entire premises at Galgorm, including the factory, fixtures and fittings as well as the associated land.
Mr Wright has confirmed that he also “gifted 40 acres of family-owned farmland to Mid and East Antrim Council by way of a legacy for the people of Ballymena in recognition of their contribution over 70 years to the service of Wrightbus”.
In a statement on Friday morning, Mr Bamford said: “We are delighted to announce that this morning I have agreed terms on a deal in principle with the Wright family for the Wrightbus factory and land.
“We are still to conclude a deal with the administrators but are pleased to report this important step in the right direction.
"I would like to thank Ian Paisley MP for his hard work and diligence in helping to mediate what has at times been a tricky negotiation."
Former Wrightbus workers who had mounted a “jobs vigil” outside the gates of the factory in Ballymena this week greeted confirmation from union leaders that a deal was in progress with cheering and clapping.
In a statement on Friday morning, Mr Wright wished Mr Bamford “every success” as the new owner of the business.
Mr Wright said: “This legacy gift is a tribute not only to my father, his father before him and the Wright family members but most importantly it is a tribute to the generations of workers who helped build a proud manufacturing tradition in Ballymena.
“It is my true wish to see this legacy used for the purposes of expanding manufacturing and benefiting our local community.”
Mr Wright said the chief executive of Mid and East Antrim Borough Council had indicated that the Wrightbus legacy lands would be used for a landmark project.
“In the last few days it was confirmed that the council’s £26 million [€28.8 million] i4C Innovation Centre could be located on the site. This will provide manufacturing start-up space and alongside the legacy lands from JTI and Michelin help council advance their bid to co-locate a Queen’s University-led advanced manufacturing innovation centre.
“I believe the presence of this centre on the Wrightbus legacy land will send a clear message to Northern Ireland and beyond that Ballymena has a strong future in advanced manufacturing,” Mr Wright added.