Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus reaches the end of road once paved with gold thanks to Boris Johnson’s order for 1,000 buses

Boris Johnson visits Wrightbus in 2016, watched by then Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, DUP MP Ian Paisley and then First Minister Arlene Foster
Boris Johnson visits Wrightbus in 2016, watched by then Secretary of State Theresa Villiers, DUP MP Ian Paisley and then First Minister Arlene Foster
Boris Johnson visits Wrightbus in 2016
Ivan Little

By Ivan Little

It seemed like the dream ticket as Boris Johnson jumped on board the Wrightbus bandwagon, buying a 1,000-strong fleet of the Ballymena company's innovative new Routemaster double-deckers for London where he was mayor at the time.

Insiders joked gleefully that after waiting ages for a London bus order to come along, two or three arrived in quick succession.

The Routemasters were dubbed the Boris buses, the kings of the King's Road, and Mr Johnson said they were "stunning pieces of automotive architecture, the very best in British design, engineering and manufacture".

But this week the irony has been inescapable as Wrightbus crashed into administration at exactly the same time as Johnson, now the Prime Minister, struggled to stay in the driving seat of his Westminster administration after damning Supreme Court rulings on his unlawful suspension of Parliament in the wake of the Brexit crisis.

Eight years ago Johnson, who once said he relaxed by building model buses, was filmed driving a Routemaster prototype in London (right).

As nervous officials shouted at him to stop he asked: "Would I be breaking the law?" - another irony in the week that it has been for the PM.

A famous picture from five years later showed a clowning Mr Johnson in Ballymena swinging on the chassis of a Routemaster surrounded by three grinning DUP politicians - Ian Paisley, Arlene Foster and Jonathan Bell - who haven't exactly had easy rides in their political journeys since.

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But back then nothing, it seemed, could go wrong for the Wrights, whose buses even featured on Top Gear and in a James Bond movie, Skyfall.

The company's own route to success had been a traditional Northern Irish one, from humble small oak beginnings in Co Antrim to their status as a top employer, with 1,400 workers on their books.

Skilled joiner Bob Wright set up the company in 1946 after the manager of the Ballymena and Harryville Co-op wondered if he could build a wooden body for a new bread van. He said he could and he did.

Bob's son William remembers working in a shed behind the family home in Warden Street, beside Ballymena United's football ground, where Wrightbus's current major shareholder Jeff Wright once played for the Irish League club.

By the '50s the company was employing 26 people building minibuses, trailers, coal lorries and delivery vehicles.

But in a book about the Wrightbus story, former sales director Jack Kernohan wrote that the development of public service vehicles changed the firm forever. Wrightbus managed to make inroads into the British market before producing buses for the likes of Hong Kong, Singapore and India. But even at the best of the good times, there were bumps in the road.

Sinn Fein claimed in 2006 that the Wrightbus employment record was "a disgrace" and that the firm was "a cold house for Catholics".

Sinn Fein's Philip McGuigan was accused of trying to sabotage a £30m American deal by contacting the US company to raise his concerns. He said that Catholics accounted for less than 2% of the workforce.

William Wright, a former Ulster Unionist councillor, enthusiastic Brexiteer, and proud Ahoghill Orangeman who was honoured by the Order in 2015 for his achievements, contacted a local radio station to say the Sinn Fein claims were inaccurate and were threatening the US deal.

Sinn Fein also criticised the flying of the Union flag at entrances to Wrightbus premises.

In 2009 the company's name featured in a high-profile trial as a Wrightbus manager, along with a PSNI data input employee, was convicted of collecting information likely to be useful to terrorists.

He was also found guilty of a charge of possessing 40 rounds of ammunition in a drawer at his office where he was said in court to have been overseeing a massive contract for 400 buses.

Up until recently there'd been no public indications that Wrightbus was in financial trouble, however. The firm was seen as one of the last good news stories in a town blighted by economic crises.

Last year, the Michelin factory had shut with the loss of nearly 1,000 jobs, around the same number which disappeared with the closure of the JTI Gallaher cigarette plant four years earlier.

Experts put the potential loss to Ballymena's economy at around £50m a year.

Wrightbus however was still sounding positive despite Transport for London calling a halt to orders for the Boris bus.

The new mayor, Sadiq Khan, didn't share his predecessor's fervour for the Routemasters, especially their cost.

Mr Johnson had paid £354,000 per bus for a consignment of 600 vehicles in 2012 and around £325,000 for another 200 two years later.

Even so Wrightbus moved into the old Gallaher's factory in 2017 declaring that they were growing and that they were there "to stay".

But seven months ago came the first rumblings that the stay might be short-lived.

One insider said: "Everyone knew that there'd been a devastating downtown in the demand for buses in the UK.

"Investments in buses had plummeted and there was disagreement over the future of the vehicles, whether they should be diesel, hybrid or purely battery-powered.

"Wrightbus looked for solutions internationally and there were hopes that they could get a new foreign investment just like other British owned bus building firms.

"But they came to nought."

In the wake of yesterday's administration announcement, the search for the reasons behind it started.

The firm's donation of £15m over six years of profitability to a Green Pastures church project in the town has inevitably come under the spotlight.

It has been stressed repeatedly by local MP Ian Paisley that Wrightbus has done nothing amiss but experts have questioned the wisdom of their largesse.

In the meantime in Ballymena, many people have been left praying for a miracle that a new buyer can be found to steer the once-thriving firm back onto the straight and narrow.

Belfast Telegraph