Wrightbus: I am sorry, says distraught founder as staff take protest at job losses to owner's church
Wrightbus founder Sir William Wright apologised to his former workers and their families as they gathered outside the Green Pastures Church in Ballymena yesterday to protest over the loss of 1,200 jobs.
Around 500 people had surrounded the church, many draping their work shirts over the fence, in a peaceful demonstration held four days after the Ballymena bus manufacturer was placed in administration.
Crowds had gathered from 9am and included children wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the words 'Save my daddy's job' or carrying placards bearing pointed Bible verses.
Despite their anger, the crowd broke into applause as Sir William (92) walked into the church to attend the morning service.
He told the crowd afterwards: "I am sorry folks, but hopefully everything will be all right."
His daughter Lorraine Rock, a company director, added: "I'm sorry. We still haven't given up hope."
Sir William's son, Pastor Jeff Wright, has come under fire after it emerged that his church, Green Pastures, received charitable donations of around £15m in the last six years through the Cornerstone Group, which ultimately controls Wrights Group.
Jeff Wright is the majority shareholder in Cornerstone.
Addressing his congregation inside the church, Jeff Wright thanked them for all their messages of support this week.
Among those present at the service in a show of solidarity was controversial Belfast preacher Pastor James McConnell.
Mr Wright said he had fought since he was a 19-year-old apprentice, learning under great tradesmen to build the company up. He said: "We went from crisis to crisis, from when we made money and when we lost money, but at least we always tried to keep our quality and integrity as we went."
He said investing in the site left behind by tobacco giant JTI Gallaher after it shut its doors was "a dream come true because it had the potential to take us into the realms of becoming a world-class company".
Acknowledging his "faults and many, many failings", Pastor Jeff said his own family had been hit by the firm's demise.
"It seems strange to me why I would jeopardise 74 years of blood, sweat and tears to make the company great and even see my own son, the fourth generation of Wrights, lose his inheritance along with my sisters and their seven children and all the hundreds of men that I worked, played football and prayed with for 25 years while I was there until God called me to be the pastor of this great church.
"This is not my church, this is the people's church - they own this church," he added.
Mr Wright said people who did not know him had said some horrendous things about him for years and about his silence to date, labelling them as "experts in Jeff Wright".
"I have learnt from dad that there is a time to speak and a time to be silent, especially since there are still some great people working very hard to not just keep the negotiations alive but also to try and bring new investors to the table.
"Then we can receive all that help from Government that has been promised to this great company. I refuse to publicly jeopardise the delicate nature of those ongoing talks that could destroy the last chances of saving the workforce, the staff and all the local suppliers."
He said an evangelical trust held a third of the shares in the company and also disclosed that £20m of reserves had been spent over the last year in an effort to keep it in operation until a buyer could be found.
The preacher previously revealed that death threats have been issued against his family following the collapse of their business.
"My heart for the company and its people means more to me than the vicious comments and intimidation that my family have received in the last week," he said.
Mr Wright acknowledged that a lot of people were afraid about the future. He added tearfully: "They don't know what way to turn, so we must be mindful of that. I am not going to jeopardise the future just so that I can look good. I am so sorry that this church has to go through what they went through. I never thought this would happen."