In Depth

Bombardier: is Northern Ireland sale linked to Brexit?

Canadian aerospace firm’s sudden decision comes at a sensitive time for UK and Northern Irish politics

The Canadian aerospace firm Bombardier is putting its wing-making operation in Northern Ireland up for sale, sparking concern among trade unions and MPs about the impact on highly-skilled jobs and fuelling fears that uncertainty around Brexit is holding back the economy.

The company plans to sell factories in Northern Ireland and Morocco as part of a strategy to consolidate “all aerospace assets into a single, streamlined and fully integrated business” in North America.

The “decision will be seen by unions and political leaders in the North as a massive blow for the economy and will cast serious doubts over the future security of the 4,000 jobs at Bombardier and thousands more in their extensive supply chain in the North”, says The Irish Times.

A spokesman for the prime minister said the government did not expect jobs to be affected but the trade union Unite said it was seeking stronger assurances from the government and the company.

“Bombardier is Northern Ireland's largest employer and a focus of intense political interest,” says the Daily Telegraph. Two years ago Theresa May personally intervened when the US threatened 300% trade tariffs on Bombardier’s C-Series airliners, asking President Trump to veto the levies, which had been demanded by US rival Boeing in response to what it claimed were state subsidies given to Bombardier.

The sale “comes at a sensitive time for the UK”, says Financial Times, “which is grappling with the impact Brexit will have on Northern Ireland”.

The company had previously warned of “serious consequences” from a hard Brexit for its operations in Belfast.

“Although Bombardier made no reference to Brexit in its statement, efforts to find a buyer for the plant could be hampered by uncertainty about tariffs and customs arrangements between the UK and the EU,” says The Guardian. “Airbus, which might have been seen as a potential buyer of the site, has voiced grave concern about the impact of Brexit on its investment in the UK.” 

The Business Secretary, Greg Clark, who has been monitoring the situation closely all week, is said to be optimistic that a buyer can be found.

However, “arriving on the same day as the local elections in Northern Ireland, the announcement comes as a blow for the region’s Democratic Unionist party”, says the FT.

The Guardian says Bombardier’s decision “will add more pressure on Northern Ireland’s politicians to restore the power-sharing executive and assembly at Stormont which collapsed in 2017 amid acrimony between Sinn Fein and the DUP”.

The assembly had discussed a plan to lower corporate tax to attract and retain industries before its collapse says University of Liverpool politics professor Jon Tonge. “The fact there is no fiscal autonomy in place - that’s where some of the blame may fall,” he said.

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