Belfast Telegraph

2019: A year of turmoil for Northern Ireland business

We take a look back at the year in business

Harland and Wolff staff protest in July
Harland and Wolff staff protest in July
Angela McGowan
Unite members at the gates of Wrightbus in Ballymena
Portrush amusement park Barry’s went on the market in November
The Templeton Hotel in Co Antrim, bought by Galgorm Collection for £7m
Brian Conlon

By Staff Reporter

It was a year of turmoil for industry stalwarts, and further Brexit uncertainty as a no-deal loomed amid political crisis.


German discount grocer Lidl starts off another year of growth in the Northern Ireland market with plans for a new ‘concept’ food store on Dunlady Road in Dundonald.

Local businesspeople urge MPs to vote for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit withdrawal agreement. CBI NI boss Angela McGowan says that pursuing a no-deal Brexit instead of the agreement is “an affront to rational thinking”.


EY’s Economic Eye warns Northern Ireland could slip into recession in a no-deal Brexit, costing 11,400 job losses next year. It warns the economy would end up around 2.7% smaller in a “significant” impact from crashing out of the EU without a deal.

A Belfast medical company behind a revolutionary thermometer warns its growth is being slowed by the impact of Brexit. Trimedika has attracted significant global interest for its non-contact infra-red reader. But the company’s plan to deliver between 20,000 and 30,000 devices this year has been hit by potential clients in the EU delaying major orders. It has said it is being forced to effectively mirror itself across the border.

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Growing hotel company Galgorm Collection snaps up the Templeton Hotel in a total investment of £7m. The business also owns Galgorm Resort & Spa, as well as Cafe Parisien in Belfast.

Alastair Hamilton, the chief executive of economic development agency Invest NI, announces he is stepping down. The departure of chairman Mark Ennis had already been announced. Later in the year, their successors are announced as Kevin Holland replaces Mr Hamilton, while Mr Ennis is succeeded by Rose Mary Stalker.


Ahead of the March 31 deadline for Brexit, the CBI sends an open letter to MPs, signed by 50 Northern Ireland firms, urging them to avert a no-deal Brexit. The Freight Transport Association urges MPs to “understand the costs and disruption of a no-deal departure from the EU on the UK economy”. The Prime Minister secures a delay, putting Brexit off until April or May if a deal gets through Parliament.

A massive £300m gas-fired Belfast power plant is given the green light. Belfast Power wants to build the huge plant at Belfast Harbour, which could produce up to half of NI’s electricity at peak times. The Department for Infrastructure also approves a new £15m cruise ship terminal at Belfast Harbour, as well as Translink’s £208m Belfast Transport Hub.


The Prime Minister secures a further deadline of October 31 for Britain to leave the EU.  While businesses are relieved that a no-deal Brexit is averted — for now — there are concerns about the impact of continuing uncertainty.

Co Tyrone construction firm McAleer & Rushe Contracts UK Ltd records an 18% rise in its annual turnover to £395m. It also reports a 25% surge in pre-tax profits to £16.8m in the 12 months to December 31, 2018.


Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier announces it’s putting its Northern Ireland operation, also known as Shorts, on the market.

The Belfast Telegraph Business Awards in partnership with Ulster Bank take place. The title of Overall Business of the Year goes to CDE Global, while Owen Brennan, executive chairman of Devenish Nutrition, wins a Lifetime Achievement Award.


NI pharmaceutical giant Almac has said the cost of further investment in its global business has led to an 18% fall in pre-tax profits from £33m to £27m.

An order for 50 new Airbus A220-300 aircraft is good news for workers in Belfast, where the wings are made at Bombardier.  The order from Air Lease Corporation in Los Angeles is announced at the Paris Air Show.

A Silicon Valley tech company has announced plans to create 100 jobs in Belfast. Dynamic Signal, which creates software for large employers to communicate with staff, said the positions will attract an average salary of around £35,000.


A nightmare begins at Harland and Wolff, the Belfast shipyard which built Titanic. The business had been on the market for six months. But the bankruptcy of its Norwegian owner Dolphin Drilling cuts off a crucial line of funding. As cash flow problems deepen, workers stage a protest at the gates of the shipyard, calling on a government bail-out. Their efforts draw attention from around the globe.  BDO is appointed administrators and momentum increases to find a buyer. Instead of BDO making staff compulsorily redundant, which often happens in an administration, a small number take voluntary redundancy. The remaining 79 are laid off temporarily, meaning their employment contracts as still intact even if they are no longer getting paid.

Ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is chosen by the Conservative Party as its new leader and is the new Prime Minister.

Brian Conlon, the founder and chief executive of Newry-based financial software firm First Derivatives, dies at the age of 53 after a short illness. Mourners at his funeral are told that while Mr Conlon rose to great heights in his career, he remained an unassuming and understated human being.


Problems at Ballymena bus manufacturer Wrightbus come to a head. It had faced the pressures of a downturn in its main UK markets and the inability to replicate the success of a former order for 1,000 of the so-called ‘Boris buses’. The company announces it’s looking for a buyer or investor. Chinese companies BYD and Weichai are linked to a deal but talks collapse.


All eyes remain on Wrightbus in Ballymena and the fate of its 1,300-strong workforce. Talks of a takeover by Darren Donnelly, formerly of SDC Trailers, lead nowhere and Deloitte is appointed administrators. Around 1,300 redundancies are announced. This leads to protests at the company’s premises, and at Green Pastures Church, where main shareholder Jeff Wright is chief pastor.  The church has also been a beneficiary of support from Wrights Group, with an estimated £15m donated to it and other charitable endeavours between 2012 and 2017.

Nearly 90 jobs are lost at a family-run contractor in Antrim after bosses said they had closed the business “with deep regret”. Blackbourne Ltd, which was founded in Antrim by Cedric Blackbourne, has been in business for 61 years.


There is joy for Harland and Wolff workers as InfraStrata plc announces it will take over the business, including its 79 staff, in a deal worth up to £6m.

Jo Bamford tables a successful deal for Wrightbus. He is to start rebuilding the company’s workforce, and forecasts that it will reach 500 next year. But the deal is preceded by intensive public wrangling between Mr Bamford and Jeff Wright. The pair conduct a public row over the terms of an agreement and whether or not land at the former JTI Gallaher’s site in Ballymena, where Wrightbus is now based, was included in a sale. Workers urge Mr Wright to hand over the land, and a compromise is reached.

US company Spirit AeroSystems has emerged as the frontrunner to acquire Bombardier in Northern Ireland, and a deal is announced at the end of the month.


Department of Finance chief Sue Gray has vowed to tackle “unfairness” in the business rates system as she called for responses to a consultation on reform. The department’s permanent secretary says she had announced a review of rates because the unfairness of the system had been raised with her “time and time again”.

SDC Trailers blames Brexit for potential job losses among its 650 staff here as trade union figures show that over 13,000 industry roles in Northern Ireland have been lost in the last 12 years. At least 100 jobs are understood to be at risk at SDC, which is owned by Chinese company CIMC Vehicles. The firm, which was owned by the Donnelly family before its sale to CIMC three years ago, employs around 800 people in total across its base in Toomebridge, Co Antrim, and a site in England.

Theme park Barry’s of Portrush goes on the market and is to be sold by advisory firm Grant Thornton. The Trufelli family, which has owned Barry’s for 93 years, said they hope to sell the park to someone who will keep it going as a family attraction. Curry’s, an Irish operator based in Eglinton in Co Londonderry, says it is interested in tabling a bid


Retailer JD Sports is planning a new £2m flagship store close to rival Sports Direct in Belfast’s Castle Place, Business Telegraph reveals. The development at the former DV8 store site will be a major boost for the location which was badly hit by last year’s Primark fire and the departure of BHS.

Businesses urge political parties to work hard to restore the Executive during a “critical juncture” for Northern Ireland. The leaders of our five main political parties hold separate talks with Secretary of State Julian Smith. However, the talks are put on hold until the new year.

A year of bleak statistics for retail and business activity draws to a close, and there is no good news from footfall figures for November. The Springboard Footfall Monitor and Insights found that footfall was down 6.6% overall in Northern Ireland during November. And the Ulster Bank purchasing managers’ index for November says that business activity has seen the sharpest fall in seven years.

Output has now fallen in each of the past nine months, with the rate of contraction accelerating to the fastest for seven years. Nonetheless, the final labour force survey of the year shows that worsening business conditions are not affecting employment levels.

Unemployment in Northern Ireland is at a record low of 2.3%. And the rate of employment among the working age population in Northern Ireland is 72.4%, the highest on record. A 3% year-on year fall in the number of new cars sold in Northern Ireland during November is the latest indicator of falling consumer confidence. 

Belfast Telegraph