Belfast Telegraph

Jim Flanagan: Deal or no deal Wrightbus spectacle sparking outright anger

Staff and trade unionists outside the Wrightbus plant in Ballymena, as they wait for the results of negotiations to purchase the troubled bus builder. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Staff and trade unionists outside the Wrightbus plant in Ballymena, as they wait for the results of negotiations to purchase the troubled bus builder. Pic: Niall Carson/PA Wire

By Jim Flanagan, former Ballymena Guardian editor

The mood among the 1,200 workers employed by Wrightbus today is a mixture of exasperation at the ongoing "deal or no deal" spectacle and outright anger at the failure to bridge the gap in discussions on a deal.

As workers congregated outside the factory at Galgorm, the chances of a successful conclusion to the talks appeared to be receding after Jeff Wright, owner of the land on which the factory sits, accused the exclusive bidder, Jo Bamford, of seeking to acquire family farmland unrelated to the Wrightbus business.

Workers' principal concern is their livelihoods and they regard the dispute over the land sale as a relatively straightforward matter, that it should be possible to resolve in discussions.

As one worker put it: "I've given 20 years of my life to Wrightbus. It's time they did something for me."

Mr Wright, who owns the premises, said he had been willing to sell the factory and associated lands, but the issue of dispute involved unrelated farmlands belonging to his family.

Mr Wright urged the administrator, Deloitte, to devote its energies to trying to secure a deal with other potential bidders.

At lunchtime Mr Bamford issued a statement confirming that at 10am he had made an offer to the Wright family to match the asking price for the Wrightbus factory and land.

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"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."

Mr Bamford said he wished to save the business and put it on a sustainable footing and claimed if the offer was not agreed, he understood the business would go into liquidation tomorrow.

The mood in Ballymena town centre is equally gloomy with the Wrightbus collapse the main topic of conversation on street corners and in shops and restaurants, facing a sizeable chunk of cash being removed from the local economy.

Jeff Wright
Jeff Wright

Many people are related to or have close friends on the payroll and are affected by the company's demise personally.

Some workers have criticised Jeff Wright for not being more accommodating and flexible in relation to the sale of the factory and surrounding land in the interests of saving jobs and salvaging the profitable elements of the Wrightbus business, principally their world leading position in relation to the development of fuel efficient hydrogen powered buses.

The fear is that if no deal is reached, then that expertise will be snapped up by international competitors, spelling the end of bus building in Ballymena.

Mr Wright addressed that criticism directly in his statement today saying that everything possible was being done to secure a deal for the company.

He said it was "disingenuous" to suggest his family were creating barriers over the land holdings, adding: "For the record the entire premises at Galgorm, including the factory, fixtures and fittings as wel as the land was agreed to be made available to all bidders to lease or purchase."

Jim Flanagan
Jim Flanagan

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