Michelin to close Ballymena tyre factory with loss of 860 jobs
The closure of a Michelin tyre factory in Northern Ireland is a "tragic blow" for the 860 employees set to lose their jobs, the Government has said.
Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers' reaction to the forthcoming end of manufacturing at the plant in Ballymena, Co Antrim echoed that of MP for the area Ian Paisley Jnr, who described the announcement as "apocalyptic".
The company said it is "running down" the truck tyre factory ahead of eventual closure in mid-2018. The move is part of a restructuring plan that will see investment in its facilities in Dundee and Stoke on Trent.
Union bosses warned that 500 contractors who work with Michelin will also be affected, with many other local businesses whose trade relies on the plant.
Stormont First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the closure was a "body blow" to the local economy and pledged to make every effort to alleviate the impact of the job losses. The Northern Ireland Executive's business support agency Invest NI and Stormont's Department of Employment and Learning will be involved in efforts to find alternative employment options.
News of the mass redundancies came a year after another major employer in Ballymena - the JTI Gallaher tobacco factory - announced plans to close its operation in the town by 2017, with the loss of around 870 jobs.
The Michelin factory in Ballymena opened in 1969. Management figures have been warning for a number of years that high-energy costs were making production increasingly unsustainable.
"Today's news is a tragic blow for the employees at Michelin Tyre," said Ms Villiers.
"The announcement represents the closure of a long-standing and valued employer in Northern Ireland."
North Antrim MP Mr Paisley said: "For North Antrim this means the loss of millions of pounds of wages annually and is, frankly, hard to come to terms with.
"The North Antrim factory has put up a valiant fight, but today they have bowed their head."
In a statement announcing the closure, Michelin said: "The proposal to run down the truck tyre factory in Ballymena has been made in light of the significant downturn in demand for truck tyres in Europe since the financial crisis of 2007, which has seen the market decrease by over five million tyres.
"This reduced market has been made even more challenging by the huge influx of tyres made in Asia, which have doubled in the last few years, and increased competition.
"As a result, there is a strong need to reduce over-capacity and to concentrate Michelin truck tyre production in larger, more competitive sites.
"Despite great efforts and progress being made in previous years, other European plants are still more competitive than Ballymena.
"The tyre building machines at Ballymena are not capable of making the hi-tech tyres of the future, and the amount of investment required to upgrade the plant is prohibitive, particularly at a time when that capacity is not required."
A consultation exercise with the workforce will now get under way.
Michelin said it would release more than £5 million to support other employment opportunities in Ballymena.
"Michelin appreciates the impact these proposals may have on the employees and local community, and commits to support every employee throughout the process," said the company.
"In the coming weeks we will meet every employee individually to discuss the proposal and the assistance the employee may need.
"Support will include enhanced redundancy payments, training and advice to find new employment quickly. Employees prepared to relocate will be offered a job in UK or European plants with relocation support."
Davy Thompson, Unite the Union regional coordinating officer, expressed deep regret.
"This announcement is a cruel blow to the workforce in the month of Christmas and is devastating news for the north east economy and that of Northern Ireland as a whole, " he said.
Mr Thompson said an extra 500 contractors and many more in the wider economy in Northern Ireland also faced redundancy.
"These were highly-paid, secure jobs reflecting the progressive employment practices of Michelin and their loss will devastate the retail and services economy in this region," he added.
Unions have repeatedly called for government action to address high energy costs and capital support to modernise the plant.
Mr Thompson claimed: "Ministerial inaction has resulted in a situation where high energy costs have left the Ballymena plant having the second lowest operating efficiency and now facing closure."
He said Unite, which represents the majority of all unionised private sector workers in Northern Ireland and in Michelin in Ballymena, was hopeful it might convince the company to reverse this decision.