Wrightbus workers feel anger, hope and a sense of disbelief as factory gates shut
Workers at Wrightbus spoke of their anger and disbelief yesterday as around 1,200 people were told they no longer had a job.
In a scene that has now become all too familiar in Ballymena, following the loss of JTI and Michelin, security at Wrightbus shut the factory gates as a huge crowd of long-term employees left their posts for the last time.
Many have dedicated their entire working life to the firm and counted multiple family members among their colleagues.
As some left carrying their work tools yesterday afternoon, drivers beeped their horns in support.
After the job losses were announced, they welcomed words of sympathy from the company founder, Sir William Wright.
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However, some criticised company donations of £15m to the Green Pastures religious charity, which is led by Jeff Wright, Wrightbus's majority shareholder.
The money was donated over six years at a time when the company was highly profitable, and intended to be used for a church and mixed development called Village Gateway.
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Production manager Gordon Mairs (39) has worked at Wrightbus for 22 years and arrived yesterday to see if rumours he had lost his job were true.
"I'm angry that it's come to this. The Boris buses were supposed to set us up for years, we did 1,000 of them in 2012," he said.
"There were other contracts in the pipeline and in the last 24 hours, it just took a turn for the worse.
"I've been in there since I was 17, I haven't really digested it yet. It's heart-wrenching."
Electrician Mark Warford (42), originally from Kent, has worked at Wrightbus for seven years.
"We were told there were two possible buyers, but they both pulled out on Friday and we were told to come into work as normal on Monday," he said.
"Nobody told us anything and today we've basically been made redundant.
"The administrators have said they don't know, they can't say if the buyers will come back in.
"The mood has slowly been getting worse and worse in recent weeks. But it's out of our hands and the only good thing is that Willie Wright came out and said a few words to us.
"I think it was appreciated because he's the only one who really cares."
Coachbuilder Andrew French (34), from Ahoghill, has been with the firm for 18 years. "I've no job tomorrow, that's it," he said. "Everybody feels the same, there's been too much money taken out of the business to go to the church.
"It's £15m over six years - that money could have kept this place afloat. We knew things weren't good for a couple of months, but we hoped something would come round the corner.
"I've been here 18 years since I left school, I know nothing else and don't know what I'll do."
Electrician Peter Duff (21) started at Wrightbus when he was 17 years old.
"There were so many rumours going around, we didn't know what to expect," he said.
"It's the end of your career, it's devastating. It's tense and emotional, too, about 1,200 people losing their jobs is a bad experience, but what can you do?
"I still have a feeling it will be saved, they have a week to find a buyer, so I hope they do."
George Brash, regional organiser for the Unite union, said he blamed the closure on the lack of political support.
"There's guys in there with 35 to 40 years of service - fathers, sons and daughters from the same family," he said.
"The administrators are saying there's a potential that bidders may still come in, that's up to them. All we're saying is that this fight isn't over here, we'll continue to fight to ensure this factory opens again.
"There's £1.5bn sitting in there, where are they going to put it?
"Who is going to build the buses for the transport infrastructure in Northern Ireland?
"Where's the politicians? Nowhere to be seen.
"The guys are angry, frustrated and upset. They're out of work, it's another blow for Ballymena and we cannot sustain this."
Commenting on the arrival of police officers, he said: "They locked us out, pure and simple. Security are saying we can't get in, we had agreed with administrators they would be let on-site and they stopped us at the gate.
"We were only having a meeting with our members which was agreed beforehand, putting in place what help and support we could.
"So they locked us out and we had to come to the gate to address those members. It's ridiculous."