Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus: Paisley says deal 'hanging by a thread' as farmland dispute continues

Former Wrightbus Workers wait at the gates of the factory in Ballymena waiting for news to see if the factory has been saved. Photo by Peter Morrison
Former Wrightbus Workers wait at the gates of the factory in Ballymena waiting for news to see if the factory has been saved. Photo by Peter Morrison

DUP MP Ian Paisley has warned a deal to rescue Wrightbus is "hanging by a thread", as a dispute over farmland appears to be hindering a potential rescue deal.

On Thursday morning, industrialist Jo Bamford claimed he made an offer for the company which was rejected and a "significantly higher sum of money" was requested.

Jeff Wright, however, said it was wrong to suggest the Wright family has created barriers hindering the deal.

Trade union Unite has said rescue talks are likely to go continue into Friday.

Bidder: Jo Bamford
Bidder: Jo Bamford

Jo Bamford, whose family owns construction equipment company JCB, said he made an offer matching the asking price for the Wrightbus factory and land.

"This includes a sum to match the amount that the factory and associated land was purchased for two years ago from JTI. Mr Wright has since refused this offer and has now asked for a significantly higher sum of money."

In response, Jeff Wright said Mr Bamford sought to gain "additional farmlands" which were not for sale, thus the deal was not completed.

"It is important to note that no other bidder sought at any time to link the farmlands to the business purchase," he said.

"Mr Bamford, as his statement confirms, did not deal with these matters until 10am this morning, Thursday October, 10. In his response he insisted he would not proceed with the deal unless the farmlands were included.

"Mr Wright does not recognise the explanation provided by Mr Bamford as to why he failed to conclude the purchase of the business.”

Speaking on BBC Radio Ulster, DUP MP Ian Paisley said he understood the farmland was originally up for sale.

"All I know about the farmland is that Jeff introduced it in this very strange statement this morning," he said.

"The farmland, from what I can understand, is part and parcel of the legacy lands set aside by JTI Gallaher in Ballymena to be used for manufacturing in Ballymena.

Jeff Wright
Jeff Wright

"It's not as if this is some separate piece of farmland or some long-term interest that was with the Wright family for generations.

"All I know is that the original parcel of land is what appears to be up for sale."

Mr Paisley said no one can understand why 1,200 jobs are being "bartered" on whether a piece of farmland should be part of the sale.

In his statement on Thursday, Jeff Wright called on Mr Paisley to allow those involved in the talks to be allowed to complete their negotiations. He said his tying the farmland issue to the business arrangements was "unhelpful".

In response, the DUP MP said: "I'm not interested in recriminations about what Jeff said about me or what I think about him, I think it's a complete and total distraction.

"The key issue should be concentrating on, is can we get a deal done and can we get workers back to work building the best buses in the world in Ballymena.

North Antrim MP Ian Paisley
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley

"Either we're in the death throes of the company or we're in the birth pains of something better, and I hope we're in the birth pains of something better.

"This is hanging by a string and there is a desire to do the right thing."

Speaking from outside the Wrightbus factory on Thursday evening, Unite regional officer George Brash said: "Our understanding is that there was a deal agreed last night in principle, both parties were happy with it.

"Then we came in this morning and that deal had been changed. Since then there has been ongoing discussions throughout the day that I can only describe as a soap opera for the workforce."

In a statement shortly after the 10am deadline passed on Thursday, Mr Wright said "exhaustive efforts" had been made to get a deal and save the company from liquidation.

"For the record the entire premises at Galgorm including the factory, fixtures and fittings as well as the land was agreed to be made available to all bidders, either to lease or purchase," he said.

"While each and every one of the bidders agreed terms Mr Bamford sought to gain unrelated additional farmlands owned by my family.

"These farmlands, which have restricted use,  were bought through a mortgage and were not at any time a part of the Wrightbus business.  What ambitions Mr Bamford or his associates may have had for our farmland is not clear, but it would be a mistake to conflate his farmland interests with his failure to complete on the Wrightbus deal and its associated lands."

He continued: "I hope that Deloittes have not been side-tracked by the Bamford engagement and can now put their energies into delivering a deal by working with the remaining bidders to secure the future of Wrightbus and the jobs in Ballymena.”

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