Ards Aerospace factory future uncertain

WORKERS IN LIMBO

By Iain Gray

ARDS factory workers are facing an uncertain future after two aircraft giants agreed a takeover deal of local manufacturing facilities.

Fears are running high that former Shorts plants across the province may be divided up, after Boeing and Airbus signed a deal on taking over worldwide engineering firm Spirit Aerosystems.

Airbus looks set to acquire Spirit’s operations in Northern Ireland, but is only interested in the sections that build the fuselage of its A220 aeroplane.

Airbus manufacturing makes up around 60% of Spirit’s business across its four Northern Irish factories, with the other 40% comprising a series of smaller contracts with a variety of aerospace firms.

That has many worried that the factories could be split up to be sold off piecemeal, or seriously downsized.

At the time of going to press there was no news of Airbus’s specific plans for the Newtownards plant; indeed, there hasn’t even been confirmation of what will happen to Northern Ireland’s largest Spirit facility, located in east Belfast.

But unions are worried that jobs are at risk, and the precarious situation led former Strangford MP Jim Shannon to call for senior ministerial intervention.

He argues that both Economy Minister Conor Murphy and Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris – or whoever inherits that role after this week’s election – need to get on the case as soon as possible.

“Any buy-over must ensure job safety for those currently employed with Spirit in Northern Ireland,” said Mr Shannon.

“This deal needs to provide promises that no employees in Northern Ireland are left in limbo.

“The Northern Ireland Assembly and Westminster government have a moral obligation to the workers already employed, and it will be a priority of mine to ensure their protection.

“Spirit plays an instrumental role in boosting our local economy in the aerospace industry, and it is clear now that an urgent meeting with our Economy Minister is needed to provide reassurance.”

Mr Shannon added that he’d met with Spirit’s vice-president, Sir Michael Ryan, to discuss potential takeovers last year, and now wants to speak to Airbus officials ‘to ensure that jobs are retained, and the workforce is kept for the future’.

Unions Unite and GMB have each called for urgent action to safeguard jobs, though said they so far hadn’t received any assurances from the new buyers.

The deal between Boeing and Airbus comes after months of protracted negotiations over Spirit’s worldwide operations, which were hit by financial problems.

It was known for some time that Boeing only wanted the elements of the business that made parts for its aircraft; the new deal confirms that Airbus is similarly only interested in the sections manufacturing its A220 fuselage.

Kansas-based Spirit bought former Shorts operations in Newtownards, Belfast, Dunmurry and Newtownabbey from previous owners Bombardier in 2020.

It brought to an end many difficult years and several rounds of job losses at the plants, and at the time was hailed as a fresh start for the local industry.