The potential collapse of a multi-billion pound Bombardier aircraft deal to the US amid a transatlantic trade war could have a drastic effect on a network of firms working in the sector here, it's been claimed.
One of Northern Ireland's biggest employers, Bombardier is facing a challenge by airline rival Boeing over the sale of up to 125 C Series jets to US carrier Delta.
Bombardier employs around 4,500 workers in Northern Ireland.
Boeing stood firmly behind its case yesterday - speaking ahead of Prime Minister Theresa May's meeting with Canadian counterpart, Justin Trudeau - claiming Bombardier is selling aircraft at "absurdly low prices... in a classic case of dumping". The US Department of Commerce is set to rule on the row next week, with industry experts warning a decision is likely to go in favour of Boeing.
Martin Craigs, chairman of Aerospace Forum Asia and a former Shorts/Bombardier worker, said: "I have watched, with skin in the game, the evolution of global trade wars in the airliner sales for over 30 years.
"The US Department of Commerce's decision on Bombardier C Series sales to Delta will be pivotal with major consequences for the airliner's wing manufacturer in Belfast.
"There is a positive way out of this, but it will require vision and lateral thinking."
Hundreds of Belfast workers build the wings and part of the C Series fuselage.
The claims that the aircraft are being ‘subsidised’, in part, due to a $1bn bailout by the regional Quebec government, is being challenged by Boeing, and if successful, could scupper the Delta deal and effectively price-out and cut off its largest market, the US, and lead to hundreds of job losses.
Dr Esmond Birnie, senior economist with the Ulster University Economic Policy Centre, said that “jobs in Bombardier, as in much of the rest of aerospace in NI, tick all the boxes in terms of relatively high wages high productivity and high level of exports”.
He said: “Bombardier is the predominant player in, and at the centre of, the aerospace ‘cluster’ in Northern Ireland.
“Northern Ireland has relatively few business clusters so we can ill afford to have the one in aerospace damaged.
“Bombardier says it has 800 supplier companies across the UK and Ireland.
“Official figures in Northern Ireland imply that for every £100 of output in aerospace, another £50 are generated elsewhere in the economies. In employment terms, ADS suggests each job in aerospace generates a further job in the rest of the economy.”
Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite union, said it is standing on the side of the workers “threatened by Boeing’s predatory behaviour”.
He said: “At base it is ordinary workers who risk being the collateral damage in what is an increasingly dirty row between two giant corporations over market share.
“My union stands in full solidarity with the workforce in Belfast.
“Personally I will be contacting our sister unions in Canada to ask for their assistance in pressing Boeing to meet with the Canadian government on these very serious matters.”
Concerns over the future of the Belfast workforce prompted Theresa May to raise the issue with US President Donald Trump. Yesterday, Boeing issued a strongly-worded statement, criticising the price Bombardier was selling its jets, saying the series “has sold poorly”.
It added: “This violation of global trade law is the only issue at stake at the US International Trade Commission — one sale in the US at a price millions lower than Bombardier is charging in the Canadian market.”