Belfast Telegraph

Production at Michelin in Ballymena comes to halt

A Michelin worker after news about the firm's job losses
A Michelin worker after news about the firm's job losses
The closed up plant
Workers at the Michelin tyre factory in Ballymena, County Antrim
The Michelin site in Ballymena
Claire Williamson

By Claire Williamson

Production has come to a halt at Michelin - marking the end of an era for a giant of Northern Ireland industry.

An institution in Ballymena since the first tyre was produced on December 3, 1969, generations of workers have passed through the factory.

It will officially close on June 30, but production wound up last Wednesday with the last tyre finished on Thursday.

For the remaining employees, it was an emotional occasion.

They include Ballymena man Rodney Quigley (53), who worked for Michelin since he was 19.

Rodney had his final production shift last Wednesday and admitted it was sad to see the machinery starting to be dismantled.

Shockwaves were sent through north Antrim in 2015 when Michelin announced the factory's closure.

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It was the second setback for Ballymena's economy after the closure of the JTI Gallaher cigarette factory was announced a year earlier, with the loss of 860 jobs.

Then in November 2015 came the Michelin announcement.

The company said 50 years of operation at the site would come to an end in April 2018 due to rising energy costs and falling demand for truck tyres in Europe.

At the time of the closure announcement there was an outpouring of support for the workers, including from Ballymena star Liam Neeson, who described the news as "tragic".

Michelin has 112,300 employees worldwide and produces over 178 million tyres in 68 sites in 17 countries. Its Ballymena tyre factory will be turned into a business park in a multi-million deal.

It has been sold to developer Silverwood which intends to develop an enterprise park there made up of manufacturing, office and warehouse space.

The site sold for an undisclosed sum, thought to be millions of pounds. Part of the site will also be given to Mid and East Antrim Borough Council as it bids to attract work linked to Heathrow airport's expansion.

In March, Michelin said that 449 of the Ballymena workers have already found new employment, been relocated to other Michelin sites or have retired.

Mr Quigley was among those present last week as production ceased.

He recalled happy memories and said the camaraderie among the workers is his lasting memory.

"Michelin was a great place for everyone to work.

"Their terms and conditions were very good. One thing we will all miss is the camaraderie," he said.

"However, it was hard work, there is no-one in there who will say they got it easy.

"The shift I was on, we had a lot of good characters and it was the craic that saw you through."

He added: "They were probably one of the best-paying employers in the area and a lot of people have to be thankful for Michelin today for having what they have."

Mr Quigley wanted to emphasise that the workers did "everything that was required of them" and that compounded their disappointment when they heard of the closure as they worked hard in a bid to "secure the future of the factory".

He said: "After having done that, they felt there was a sense of disappointment that they were surplus to requirements within the Michelin network."

He said: "It was devastating when we heard.

"It was disappointing that we had done everything that was required of us but they still decided to close Ballymena.

"It would be unfair to in any way suggest that we were the worst performing factory in the group. It was disappointing that we were still performing at a very high level but headquarters decided to close us."

Mr Quigley, who has always worked as a tyre finisher on the production line, has seen many changes over his years in the factory.

The biggest, he said, is the development in machinery which allowed for a higher quota of production.

He added: "The new machinery was more modern and you are able to make more tyres.

"From 1984 it was around 800-1000 tyres a day up until its height in 2013/14.

"Before the closure was announced they had the capacity to make over 4,000 tyres a day." Rodney said since the closure announcement, the company refocused its attention on training staff for new skills and employment.

"You were allowed to go and do courses, there was a good variety of stuff and a lot of the boys got jobs out of the money that was supplied for every man to be retrained," he explained.

But as he prepares to finish in Michelin at the end of June, Mr Quigley said he feels for the younger workers who thought they had the prospect of a secure career.

He added: "I feel for the young people that started in 2013, 2014 and 2015 who were looking forward to what they thought was a secure future in the tyre factory and ended up losing their job after only a few months or years of employment." Mr Quigley said Michelin's closure will continue to impact the wider community.

He said he hasn't seen the promises of investment coming through for the town and called on both the local council and Stormont to do more.

He said: "Way back in 2015 when the announcement was made that the factory was closing they said they would do everything within their power to bring investment back.

"All I can see is places closing - what is our government doing?

"We don't have a government fit for purpose.

"They are too busy arguing among themselves.

"I think it's important they (the Assembly) are back in place because the bottom line is there's announcements of closures all the time. If it's not a shop or business closing, it's an industry that's closing.

"And especially in Mid and East Antrim. What industries are there other than Wrights Group in Ballymena now?

"If you'd have told someone 10 years ago that in 2018 Patton, Gallaher's and Michelin had all gone to the wayside, you'd have laughed at them.

"The Northern Ireland government is holding the whole country to ransom."

After the gates close at Michelin for the final time, father-of-two Rodney is planning to do some voluntary and part-time work and intends to run as an independent for Mid and East Antrim Council.

But for now he's looking forward to his first summer off in nearly 40 years.

Belfast Telegraph

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