The vital role the aerospace sector plays in the Northern Ireland economy was highlighted this week by Labour MPs, who called on the government to take action after hundreds of job cuts at Bombardier, Thompson Aero and other major companies in the sector.
The call from MPs follows on from continued pressure from Unite demanding that the government intervene with a sector-specific support package for the beleaguered aerospace industry which has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus crisis.
During Northern Ireland questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday (June 25), Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh raised the plight of Bombardier and other Northern Ireland workers in aerospace, more than a thousand of whom have lost their jobs amid the pandemic.
“600 job losses at Bombardier, 400 at Thompson Aero, another 200 at risk from the cancellation of the Airbus Neo project,” she said. “Northern Ireland cannot afford to lose these jewels in the crown of their economy. So will the Secretary of State ensure the government steps in with a strategy and support for the aerospace sector similar to that provided by France, Germany and the US?”
Speaking on behalf of the government, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis simply reiterated general finance support the government has offered business, but failed to commit to a specific support package.
Labour MP Alex Cunningham went on to press the government again during Northern Ireland questions, emphasising the importance of the aerospace sector to Northern Ireland’s economy.
“Virtually every major commercial aircraft programme in the world comes back as either structure, services, or in parts to Northern Ireland,” he said. “Yet the recent redundancies have been greeted with no more than a shrug of the shoulders from ministers who seem to think that general statements are enough. When will he meet with the workforce at these plants and put his weight behind a plan to help them survive this crisis?”
Again, Tory MP and Northern Ireland minister Robin Walker, following on from Lewis earlier, failed to commit to any meeting with the workforce, citing only business leaders the government has already met.
Labour MP Chris Matheson again raised the plight of Bombardier and other Northern Ireland aerospace workers, ramping up the pressure on government.
He highlighted the “severity of job losses at Bombardier, which drive a whole host of other supply chain companies” and asked what the government was doing to support the wider supply chain – again MPs were met with an indirect response.
In total, the issue of Bombardier and other Northern Ireland aerospace job losses was raised five times during Northern Ireland questions on Wednesday. It follows ongoing pressure from Unite in Northern Ireland and across the UK pressing the government for sector specific support.
Earlier this month, Bombardier Aerospace announced it would be slashing 600 jobs from its operations in Belfast, with 400 staff and 200 agency workers being made redundant.
The firm said it had made the cuts on the back of “extraordinary industry interruptions and challenges” amid the coronavirus pandemic. The job losses in Belfast were on top of 2,500 job cuts across the Canadian aerospace firm’s global operations.
In the wake of the Bombardier announcement, Unite regional secretary Jackie Pollock wrote to First Minister Arlene Foster and deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill seeking an urgent meeting on the threat to the vital aerospace sector in Northern Ireland.
Highlighting the Bombardier job losses, Pollock said, “Aerospace jobs are high-value added, unionised jobs; they are not easily replaced and they have a vital role in our economy. Between direct and indirect employment, the sector accounts for 10,000 jobs in Northern Ireland and 1.2 million in the UK, which is a global leader in the industry.
“In terms of exports, aerospace is even more significant for Northern Ireland; it’s output is valued at £1.9 billion a year. The industry is a pillar of our economy but its future hangs in the balance as order books have collapsed on the back of the Covid-19 shutdown.
“There is need for decisive and urgent action by government both regionally and nationally,” he added. “The French government has taken the initiative and brought forward a €16 billion intervention to protect French aerospace and aviation skills and jobs, while also delivering on climate change commitments. Significant investment alongside moves to enforcing a transition to higher fuel economy planes will significantly stimulate demand and sustain jobs while helping lower emissions of greenhouse gases.
“This is precisely the sort of intervention we need to see and quickly from the UK government and NI Executive. Unless a support package is brought forward soon, including measures such as an aircraft scrappage scheme, then thousands of jobs will be lost and Northern Ireland will lose its standing as a global leader in aerospace.”
Commenting on the situation nationally, Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner also reiterated the call for an aerospace sector support package.
“UK aerospace workers, like those in automotive and right across manufacturing, are asking why this government is taking so long to give them the support that governments in France, Germany, Spain and the US have wasted no time in providing to their strategically important sectors,” he said.
By Hajera Blagg