Foster’s delight at the saving of Bombardier jobs has turned to indifference

Posted By: January 30, 2019

A thousand Airbus jobs in east Belfast will be unviable if there is a hard Brexit                 

Fintan O’Toole.Irish Times.Dublin. Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Forget the Border and the backstop for a moment. Think Bombardier – that huge plant you pass on the way to Belfast City Airport, just east of Harland and Wolff. If you are a Unionist, it ought to have a particular significance for you. It used to be the Short Brothers factory that made aircraft and missiles, mostly for the British armed forces.

It was the union in physical and economic form: Belfast’s industrial and engineering heritage deeply embedded in the British state. It was also embedded in the history of the Second World War: Shorts made many of the bombers that pulverized Germany and was itself one of the main targets for German bombing raids on Belfast. And it was a bastion of working-class Protestant privilege: in 1988 just 11 percent of its workforce was Catholic.

The plant is now one of the last vestiges of that heritage: Bombardier, which took over Shorts in 1989, still makes aircraft wings. When Bombardier announced in 2008 that the wings for its C-series aircraft would be made in Belfast, it was the largest ever foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland. There are now 1,000 good jobs making aircraft wings. Their importance to an economy still heavily overdependent on public sector employment is obvious. But I would have thought they were also of great symbolic and emotional importance to the Unionist community. Here is a living legacy of a British and Protestant industrial world that shaped unionism itself. If I were a Unionist, the idea of keeping this place alive would mean a great deal to me. It’s not just a factory – it’s a history, a culture, an identity.


So who is keeping it alive? Europe. Those aircraft wings are being made for the Airbus A220. Airbus has effectively taken over the Bombardier line of aircraft and integrated it with its own. And Airbus is the quintessential European Union single-market operation. It is based in Toulouse, where all of its commercial aircraft are finished. But big parts of those aircraft are made in other EU countries, including the UK, where Airbus directly and indirectly employs 124,000 people, among them those wing-makers in Belfast. It provides good jobs everywhere from Aberdeen to Portsmouth. It does this because it can – the single market and customs union allow the aircraft parts to move freely back and forward to France.

This freedom matters to all industries, but it is especially crucial if you are making aircraft. Any child could understand that regulation and standardization of aircraft parts is kind of important – one mismatch in one part and you fall out of the sky. More than 10,000 different parts for Airbus aircraft originate in the UK. If there is a no-deal Brexit, UK aerospace companies will not be covered under existing regulatory approvals from March 30th. Those Belfast wings become useless – even before all the questions of customs delays kick in.

Last week, Tom Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, who happens to be German, issued an open letter that pointed out how the company and its workers and suppliers in the UK “stand on the edge of a precipice” because of “the Brexiteers’ madness.” He warned that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the company would have to make “potentially very harmful decisions for the UK.”

On Friday, the Tory MP Mark Francois was being interviewed by BBC TV news outside parliament in London. He is a prominent member of the cabal of ultra-Brexiteers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg that calls itself the European Research Group (ERG). “Mr. Enders’ intervention,” he blustered, “is a classic example of the sort of Teutonic arrogance which is one of the reasons why many people voted to leave the European Union . . . My father Reginald Francois was a D-Day veteran. He never submitted to any bullying by any German. Neither will his son. So if Mr. Enders is watching, that’s what he can do with  his letter.” He tore it up in front of the camera.

‘Bright future.’

The Bombardier plant is in the constituency of a DUP MP, Gavin Robinson. When Airbus effectively rescued it in 2017 by giving it the contract to make the wings for the A-220, the party’s leader Arlene Foster hailed it as “incredibly significant news for Bombardier, Belfast and Northern Ireland . . . I’m thrilled there is a bright future ahead following what has been a dark time for staff and management”. I have searched in vain for any statement at all by Robinson, Foster or any other DUP representative on Airbus’s warning of the impossibility of continuing its UK operations in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Instead, the DUP is fully aligned with the ERG and with the childish belief that this will all just go away if you tear up warnings, evoke D-Day, give two fingers to the Germans and then blame the backstop for pushing you towards self-destruction. And I genuinely don’t understand this. I don’t understand why a very decent local MP like Robinson is not standing up for his constituents or how Foster’s delight at the saving of these jobs two years ago turns to such blithe indifference. I keep trying to apply some rationality to this. But it just won’t fly.