Weary Visteon protesters remain firm and resolute
Published 23/04/2009 | 02:47
The sun is going down over the Visteon factory in west Belfast. Day 22 of the workers sit-in protest is stretching into evening, and inside the mood is calmer, after another round of Press interviews, protests, banner-waving, and visits from well-wishers.
They bring them sandwiches, drinks (non-alcoholic, the men point out), toiletries. But most of all they bring them moral support. If all these men can do is sit it out, then at least they know they are not on their own — in spirit anyway.
But away from the media soundbites, the honking of car horns from other workers in other firms heading home on the M1, what is it really like inside Visteon now?
The smell of oil and molten plastic still lingers in the air. One-and-a-half metre tall blue plastic boxes are neatly lined up and filled to the brim with manifolds for the new Ford Explorer 4x4. The last box in the line has the words ‘all done' scrawled on the side in permanent marker.
The vast room is interwoven with footways and forklift runs. They are like mini streets, dividing the plant into its different sections. A community made up of ordinary people, and one replicated in factories and workplaces across Northern Ireland.
Donal Murphy (57), from Belfast, is showing us around. He’d been working for the firm for 40 years when the plant closed down. Married to Francis (55) for 36 years, the couple have four children, Roisin, Donal, Francis and Angela, all aged between 21 and 30.
It is clear that Donal put great store in the work that he and his colleagues did in these eerily silenced environs.
“What you're looking at here is state of the art machinery. This is our secret weapon. It's called a Helium Leak Tester,” he says, the old pride in his work hard to hide despite the trauma of the past few weeks.
And it’s odd. Odd to hear a working man who feels he’s been thrown onto the scrapheap hang on to a residue of affection for the job. Odd to hear a kind of loyalty when it is clear that it is not a two-way process.
And so we look on at a complex device that we couldn't begin to understand.
Warming to his theme, Donal continues: “The molecules in Helium are six times smaller than that of air. We pump Helium at high pressure through the fuel rail. It's important because the rail brings fuel to the engine. If there's a leak in it we'll get it. Every piece of machinery we need is here. Given the word, we could have this place up and running again in four hours.”
Donal's passion is overwhelming. He describes what each machine and each area does. But sometimes the anger is clear while he speaks.
Donal knows the chances of him and his workmates being given four hours notice to start the production line are more than remote.
For men like Donal this isn't about a lump sum. “What people need to understand is that we don't want a big payout. We just want our jobs back.”
Tuesday morning's High Court decisions created a sobering mood amongst men at the plant.
The High Court action which seeks to brand the sit-in illegal was adjourned until tomorrow in order to grant the men more time to seek legal advice.
Donal explains: “We know the police may have to come in at some stage. But they will have to physically remove us.
“That means the police coming into west Belfast and trying to remove working class men from a local factory. It won't look good. And we have the full support of the whole community.”
Outside, around 15 men sit by the gate, carefully monitoring who comes up the lane towards them. An oil drum emits a warm glow as the wood inside it crackles. Even
though the factory is shut the men have still maintained discipline.
Donal says: “We used to work a three-shift system when the plant was open.
“The guys who do the night time protest are the guys who used to work the night shift. We're keeping routine.
“As far as the picket at Ford showrooms go, we just pick our days to protest. There's great camaraderie and teamwork amongst us. If we hadn't have acted the way we did we would have been done and dusted.”
Donal explains how the protest has relied a lot on the local community over the past few weeks. “We haven't really had to buy much. Loads of local companies have been donating food and money.
“The community spirit has been fantastic. Politicians have been good as well. It's the first time we've seen them all agreeing on something.”
Donal is now afraid that his home life will suffer. “I was planning an early retirement. Two of my kids are in Australia and I wanted to go out and see them someday. I've started to sign on for job seekers' allowance but even if I do get a job I'll be working until I'm 75.”
Kevin McKee (40) lives locally and was in his seventeenth year at Visteon. He is married to Maria (40) and they have four young children, Maria, Conal, Caolan and Cara. We meet Kevin at the roadside motorway protest.
The men have built a makeshift platform where they wave at commuters on the motorway during rush hour to garner support. Even though usually there's nobody on the platform, horns are constantly tooting.
Kevin explains how his kids keep him going: “My son Caolan drew me a coloured poster while at school. It says ‘Don't buy Ford. Save all the people that worked in Visteon.' It's amazing how tuned in kids can be.”
And he pointed how support hasn't wavered over the last few weeks.
“The atmosphere here is still pretty upbeat. We are always in the Press and we are keeping ourselves busy.
“For example, we have being doing on-site CV building courses and conducting mock job interviews. My wider family have been great. They've been bringing the kids to school and stuff. My wife gets a lot of support in her work. When we were picketing the Boucher Road showroom a woman pulled up and gave us a tenner for food.
“Another lady who had done her week’s messages pulled up at the front gate and gave us two bags full of biscuits.”
Sean McCaffrey (47) is married to Moya and has two children, Lisa (21) and Stephen (17).
I first spoke to Sean three weeks ago just after the protest had begun. At the time he spoke of his devastation and how he had worked at Visteon all his life.
He also talked of how his son had refused to take change for his school bus fare and that his wife was losing sleep.
When we catch up with Sean he is weary after a long day at the plant. “I've been here since a quarter to seven this morning. I was going to go to a mate's house but he wasn't in.
“When I'm at home the mind starts to wander so I decided to come back to the plant.
“There was a bit of a quiet period this morning during the court hearing.
“They may try and evict us but there'll be more than 210 workers here.”
Sean continues his work but speaks of his regret at having to sign on.
“I've never been to the dole office before. As I said the last time I spoke to you, as soon as I left school I started working here. I have to take advantage of the on-site training and keep active.
“ I went for the job seekers' interview last week. I got in the wrong queue three times. It's the small things like that that are frustrating.”
James Moore is from Carrickfergus and is married to Mary (42) and has four children, Hannah (10), Olivia (8) and twins Grace and Sarah (4).
James turns 43 next week. “It's not a great birthday present. The fact that my wife doesn't work makes it worse.
“But that was the biggest appeal of the job, that Mary could stay at home and one income was enough.
“I don't think I'll be able to find a job after this where I'll earn enough to get by.”
James also vents his frustration at some politicians. “Coming from a Protestant background I have to say that Sinn Fein and the Socialist Workers Party have been the only people making a difference. Even the Alliance party have responded to us. Unionists have been a waste of time.”
Paddy Hughes (58) lives locally and is single. “I've worked here for 32 years. It's been bad for all of us but it's the younger ones I feel sorry for.
“They're only getting into the way of it. Big business has the backing of the law. Our pensions were the only thing we signed over to Visteon.
“When the plant was owned by Ford we were told that we could keep our pensions with them but we would have to work until we are 65. It was like turkeys signing up for Christmas.”
The most obvious thing about all the men here is their overwhelming sense of betrayal.
They feel that Ford has a lot to answer for, that promises were broken.
Night is falling at Visteon in west Belfast.
Paddy and his colleagues will man these gates through the night, wondering what the next weeks, days or even hours will bring.
And as the smoke from the fire drifts across the nearby motorway, the tired men forlornly stroll beside the gates, poignantly standing guard.
These men have been the lifeblood that fuelled the plant for so long.
And now the sun is going down over Visteon. . .