Bombardier Belfast sale threatens 7,200 jobs in Northern Ireland
Canadian aerospace giant Bombardier is to end its 30-year relationship with Northern Ireland.
The company's 3,600 staff were left in shock yesterday by the company's unexpected announcement that it intends to sell off its aerostructures operations across greater Belfast and in Morocco.
No new job cuts have been announced, with the transport company stating that it is committed to finding the right buyer.
However, political leaders expressed concern about the future of workers.
Bombardier is already embarking on a series of cost-cutting measures within its Northern Ireland business. In November it announced plans to shed 490 jobs, which would leave its workforce at 3,600, around half of what it was in 2002.
The company's operation here specialises in aircraft components, including engine nacelles (casings), fuselages and wings.
Based largely in a facility next to Belfast City Airport, it also operates from sites in Newtownabbey, Dunmurry and Newtownards.
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Bombardier bought the Short Brothers operation in 1989. The original company emerged from London in 1908, with Shorts setting up an aircraft building programme with Harland and Wolff in Belfast in 1936.
The facility became increasingly important during World War Two and by 1948, Shorts became a Belfast company in its entirety.
Despite reporting an increase in work within its Northern Ireland aerostructures division, Bombardier said yesterday that its future no longer lies in commercial aviation.
Chief executive Alian Bellemare told shareholders during yesterday's company AGM that Bombardier will focus on business aircraft and rail in future.
In a statement, Bombardier said: "We understand that this announcement may cause concern among our employees, but we will be working closely with them and our unions as matters progress, and through any future transition period to a new owner.
"There are no new workforce announcements as a result of this decision, but our management team will continue to drive ongoing transformation initiatives to improve productivity and increase our competitiveness, to give more weight to our unique value proposition to potential buyers."
Unite regional secretary Jackie Pollock said staff had been left in shock by the news, with questions turning to the long-term future of the operation.
"It doesn't matter whose name is above the gate - what matters is that we safeguard jobs and skills in this critical industry," he said.
"The UK government must stand ready to ensure the retention of jobs and skills at these sites.
"Bombardier is simply too important to the Northern Ireland economy to allow anything less."
Business Secretary Greg Clark said he had spoken with Bombardier's senior leadership in Canada following yesterday's announcement.
Describing the Belfast plant as one of the most important aerospace facilities in the UK, he said it will be highly sought after.
"The Government will work with potential buyers to take this successful and ambitious business forward," he added.
Roger Pollen of the Federation of Small Businesses said Bombardier had created an intricate supply chain in Northern Ireland that includes many small and medium-sized companies.
"It is crucial that a suitable buyer is found for the operation, who can continue to sustain a vibrant aerospace sector locally," he said.
But Northern Ireland-based aviation expert Martin Craigs has said that the sale could turn out to be a "blessing in disguise" for the Northern Ireland aerospace industry, acting as a catalyst for investment and job creation.
A former Shorts employee, he held senior roles in Airbus and Saab, before retiring as executive vice-president of British Aerospace.
"I think if you're minded about the world aerospace business this could be a blessing in disguise. You could look at a 50% increase in employment in the next five years," he said.
"The key thing to keep in mind is the huge backlog for aerospace products and there is no doubt the A220 is going to have a long life and strong sales."
Among the list of potential buyers is US aerostructures manufacturer Spirit Aerosystems, which has a UK base in Prestwick, Scotland. It recently acquired Belgium's Asco Industries.
Worcestershire-based aerospace components firm GKN is another likely suitor, while China's AVIC has been suggested as an outside bet.
Industry insiders have also said a venture capital led bid should not be discounted. However that type of purchase would likely worry unions.
In any case, it is believed that Airbus will have a major say in who the new owner is.
The European giant took a majority stake in the A220 series (formerly C-Series) alongside Bombardier last July.
The wings for the narrow body jet are made in Belfast, and the new owners will almost certainly inherit the wing programme.