Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Could Visteon be template to overcoming sectarianism?

United: Visteon workers protesting at the Belfast plant in 2009
United: Visteon workers protesting at the Belfast plant in 2009

The first time I met John Maguire, I didn't know what he was. I am still not entirely sure. Maybe he's neither Orange nor Green. In fact, that's probably it. I don't think that communal colouration is an aspect of life that interests him much.

I met John at the Visteon plant in Belfast three-and-a-half years ago. A group of workers had phoned and asked me to come to Belfast and speak at a meeting in the plant.

They had begun an occupation the previous day after being given six minutes to get out. Managers had announced that the business had been losing money and would be closing without further ado. Some of the workers had been there for 30 years.

John, shop steward for the Unite union at the time, has now written a play about the experience, The Visteon/Ford Occupation, set on the day of the sackings and the launch of the occupation.

Sponsored by Unite, it will open next Tuesday night at the Emerald Playhouse Theatre on Finaghy Road North, adjacent to the site of the plant.

Until 2000, the Belfast facility had been directly owned by Ford. The car giant then spun off its UK component manufacturing section - at Basildon, Enfield and Swansea as well as Belfast - and created Visteon.

The workforce in Belfast and elsewhere went along with the change without demur on the basis of what they believed were explicit assurances that pay and terms of employment would continue to match conditions in Ford. When closure came, it was immediately clear that this wasn't the company's understanding at all.

The occupation ended after seven weeks in partial victory. The jobs were lost, but Visteon and Ford were forced back into talks on redundancy pay and pensions.

The result was a far better deal than had originally been on offer. No one involved looks back now with anything other than satisfaction and pride at the effort they put in.

"It might have been a limited victory, but it was real," says John Maguire. "For many of us, the difference in the level of redundancy was the difference between keeping a roof over your head and having to hand back your home. What we did was definitely worth it."

The pensions issue continues to trundle towards the High Court. The latest date for a hearing in London is May 2013.

Unite argues that its members were given 'misleading' information in 2000 and that Ford remains legally as well as morally responsible for funding Visteon pensions. Ford argues that it divested itself of this responsibility when Visteon became a separate entity.

John says that he decided to write the play because, "this was a story that needed to be told." His first instinct was to find a 'proper' playwright to produce a script. He brought the idea to Martin Lynch, who recommended a book on how to write a play and told him to go and do it himself. Lynch then helped edit the script.

"The biggest problem was just how to get the story onto the stage," says John. "Every one of 210 workers was involved in something none of us had been through before.

"There was so much happening. An awful lot has had to be left out. I just hope that, when my workmates come along next week, they won't go away asking why their part wasn't shown. That's one of the things I learned, that to tell the story on a stage you have to leave a lot of it out."

The most obvious precedent for Ford/Visteon is Over The Bridge by former shipyard worker Sam Thompson, produced after a painful gestation back in January 1960.

Thompson's theme had to do with the way communal identity weakens the working class. This is an aspect of life which won't figure on the stage of the Emerald Playhouse next week, not because John has ignored it, but because it wasn't there to be acknowledged. It is implicit in Ford/Visteon that when working-class unity takes centre-stage, separate identities aren't worth talking about.

There's a message in that for the apparently huge number of commentators, analysts and peace-process professionals who agonise every day, seemingly, about how to overcome sectarianism.

But to admit that the Visteon experience might be the best way forward would imply support for militant, rank-and-file, working-class action.

Which is why, in spite of this truth being blindingly obvious, it usually goes unspoken.

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