Esmond Birnie: Bombardier movement means turbulent times ahead, but it is not all dead for the Belfast workforce

  Uniting the association, which represents the majority of employees hired by Bombardier in five locations in Northern Ireland, held a press conference on its response to the advertising. Image of: Arthur Allison / Pacemaker Press

Uniting the Association, which is the majority of Bombardier's employees in five locations in Northern Ireland, held a press conference on its response to the announcement. Image of: Arthur Allison / Pacemaker Press

Many people can feel the last Bombardier experience in Northern Ireland has been dead with a thousand cuts. First, redundancy, then the sale of control of the C series to Airbus, and now Bombardier's announcement that it wants to sell its business.

Aircraft making on the coast of Belfast Lough began in the late 1930s. In the 1940s, the English company Shorts moved all of its operations to Northern Ireland.

In addition to shorts in Belfast, Shorts in Belfast combined significant technical virtuosity, such as groundbreaking vertical launch, with an increasing appetite for subsidies from Belfast and London governments. The business was under state ownership for many years, but then privatized to the Canadian firm in 1989.

After 30 years, Bombardier seems to have decided to consolidate back into their business jet operations.

At the four factories in Northern Ireland – Belfast, Newtownabbey, Dunmurry and Newtownards – the company employs 3,600 people.

Jobs in Bombardier tend to cross all the right boxes in Northern Ireland's industrial strategy, because wage levels and productivity are above Northern Ireland Average.

The company also contributes to a significant portion of all exports and R&D activity in total production in Northern Ireland.

At UK level, it is estimated that every job in an airline supports a further job elsewhere in the economy through the supply chain and additional spending expenses generated by aviation personnel.

Bombardier fully supports a total of 7,200 jobs in the Government National Economy.

We now have a seller, but do we have a buyer? The global aviation market is dominated by the two largest players – the American Boeing and European Airbus. Boeing is probably concerned about the difficulties that come with the Boeing 737MAX breakdown.

In 2018, Boeing launched a partnership with the Brazilian airline Embraer. While Airbus took control of the C series, now the A220, I suspect it wouldn't want to buy the rest of Bombardier in Northern Ireland.

As a consequence, the buyer is more likely to be one of the smaller and newer airline participants, and it is not without risk to the long-term sustainability of Northern Ireland. Spirit AeroSystems is an opportunity.

It's a spin from part of Boeing, its aerostructure division in Wichita, Kansas, along with some purchases from British Aerospace (BAE).

Closer to home is GKN. The roots of the company date back to iron working in the industrial revolution of Wales, but recently it has moved to the automotive and defense industries, including the purchase of the Dutch airline Fokker. Unfortunately, uncertainty is likely to continue to damage both the Belfast operation and global aviation in general.

Two things can work for the Bombardier Shorts. Firstly, to the extent that either the British Government or a future delegated government is willing, there are prospects for any subsidy or subsidy aid.

Secondly, attempts to move aircraft production to very low wage stations have not always flourished. One of the selling points in the Northern Ireland factories will be the special skills of the workforce in complex technologies.

  • Dr Esmond Birnie is a senior economist at Ulster University Business School

Belfast Telegraph

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