Belfast Telegraph

Wrightbus: 'Things aren't dead in the water but they're hanging by a thread'

Staff in limbo as Wrightbus drama plays out in public

The Wrightbus staff who waited in the rain for news yesterday
The Wrightbus staff who waited in the rain for news yesterday
The Wrightbus staff who waited in the rain for news yesterday
The Wrightbus staff who waited in the rain for news yesterday
TUV leader Jim Allister talks to the Wrightbus staff
Mark Bain

By Mark Bain

All the best Hollywood movies keep the audience waiting until the final seconds, putting the cast through the emotional wringer.

Such was the case at the gates of Wrightbus in Ballymena yesterday on a wet, stormy and miserable morning.

But this turned out to be the director's cut - longer and more complex than expected.

It didn't go down well.

This wasn't entertainment; this was real life.

Throughout a rain-lashed morning - when the finale, had been expected around 10am - the mood darkened in tandem with the weather as update after update confirmed nothing.

Near the factory entrance, workers had hung a sign reading: "Make Ballymena Great Again".

A T-shirt hanging on a fence read: "Why, Jeff?" - a reference to Jeff Wright, who owns the land on which the factory sits.

By mid-afternoon the 250-strong crowd of the morning had dwindled to 20 or 30. Many had been there since 8am, hoping Wrightbus had a new owner and their jobs saved.

Instead, there was disgust at a war of words between the Wright family and industrialist Jo Bamford, the bidder who thought a deal had been agreed in principle on Wednesday night.

The deal had failed, they heard, then the talks were ongoing. The men in the middle - the workers - were still none the wiser.

Support came in the form of local MLA Jim Allister, then UUP leader Robin Swann, both following the line of 'while there's talk, there's hope'.

"They're still around the table, so I suppose there's some small sliver of hope," said Mr Swann.

"It's probably something that the people talking inside forget, but these are men and woman out here today who rely on Wrightbus to support their families.

"That's what has to be taken into consideration as we move into these final hours."

TUV leader Jim Allister said he sensed the mood had dipped as much as the weather.

"The one comfort we can draw is that there still seems to be talking and where there's talk there's hope," he added.

"My hope is that the squabble we have won't stand in the way. We have to say to all involved that there's a deal there to be done so just get it done."

Lunchtime arrived and so did a sandwiches, coffee and tea from a local Spar, much appreciated by the soaked workforce.

"The support the community and the businesses have shown us has been great," said one worker, but most of those huddled around the gates were too nervous or too angry to speak.

"I'm still hopeful," said Darren McCallan, who had a young family at home waiting on updates.

"I'm going in for an operation in two weeks time. If this doesn't happen, who's going to want to employ me?"

Speculation was everywhere.

"These are very muddy waters," said Wrightbus employee Greg Irwin.

"Who do you believe? It's hard to comprehend how a company of this size has come to this."

"This is mad," another worker told me, shaking his head in disbelief.

"I'd stay around to find out what's happening, but I have to get home and see the wee man before he goes to bed."

And there you have it. Real life. The family depending on a hard-earned wage which may longer be there if the fear of 'no deal' comes to fruition.

As I left, fear still hung in the air, clinging to the atmosphere like the evening mist at the end of a long and miserable day.

"We'll be here as long as it takes," Unite official George Brash told me as I made my exit, leaving before the end.

"It's not a spectacle that's easy to watch.

"It's not dead in the water - it's hanging by a thread."

The hope is that this will, eventually, be a feelgood movie, not a tragedy.

The cameras continue to roll.

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