Belfast Telegraph

Despite Michelein jobs bodyblow, signs are positive for manufacturing in Northern Ireland

By Paul Gosling

Ballymena has for generations been one of Northern Ireland's manufacturing heartlands.

That picture is rapidly changing. The news that 860 jobs are to go with the closure of the Michelin plant comes not long after it was announced that JTI - formerly Gallaher's - is departing the town at a cost of nearly 900 jobs.

A further 500 people may become unemployed in Michelin's supply chain and distribution network, believe trade unions. In total through the two closures more than £70m looks set to go from the local economy annually - just from the loss of employee incomes. The service sector will be badly hit and Ballymena's status as a retail centre will be damaged.

There is rare cross-party agreement on the impact. "Apocalyptic", said the DUP's Ian Paisley jnr. "Devastating", suggested Sinn Fein's Daithí McKay.

Michelin's factory is to close in 2018, JTI's over the next two years. Unless there is some unexpected good news the Ballymena area will be hit badly by a steep rise in unemployment. The town sits in the Mid and East Antrim Council district, where currently 2,300 people claim unemployment-related benefits. That is 2.7% of the population and below the Northern Ireland average.

But add in the 2,160 people now scheduled to lose work and unemployment could nearly double. The area will potentially go from low unemployment to one of NI's three worst blackspots.

As with steel - an industry where thousands of jobs are going in Britain - the mix of global overproduction and lower cost competition is killing Northern Ireland's tyre production. High energy and distribution costs are factors.

The big question is whether manufacturing in Northern Ireland has a future. Hundreds of other manufacturing jobs have been lost in recent years, including at Caterpillar, Bombadier and Quinn's.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, insists the signs are positive - especially in Ballymena, home to Wrightbus and where manufacturing is responsible for 27.5% of jobs in and around the town. "Manufacturing has been growing over the last couple of years - in many ways it's the star performer in our (Northern Ireland) economy," he said. Growth has been noticeable, particularly in the transportation and food sectors.

That good news is important not just for Ballymena, but also to Northern Ireland as a whole. With too little wealth in our economy we have to export to attract other people's money. And it can be difficult to export services. While tourism is a valuable services export, much of the work is poorly paid.

By contrast, many of the jobs we are losing in manufacturing - including at Michelin - are well paid. And well-paid jobs are something Northern Ireland could do with more of, not less.

Belfast Telegraph