Government urged to 'stand up to Boeing' in Bombardier row

Michael Ryan says Bombardier is against any moves toward a deal that would effectively redraw the border in the Irish Sea
Gary McDonald Business Editor

A LEADING business figure in the north has urged the British government to "stand up to Boeing" in the row which is threatening thousands of jobs at Belfast plane-maker Shorts Bombardier.

Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI, told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of MPs: "It's important the UK becomes more robust with Boeing as a company."

His comments came as Bombardier's most senior manager in Belfast weighed into the ongoing Brexit negotiations by insisting the company is against any moves toward a deal that would effectively redraw the UK-Ireland border in the Irish Sea.

Michael Ryan, Bombardier's president of aerostructures and engineering services, in an interview with Bloomberg, said the aerospace firm wants to preserve the status quo as much as possible regardless of whether the customs boundary is drawn at the Channel Tunnel or Stranraer, but regards the latter option, amounting to an Irish Sea border, as more onerous.

And he added that the relative optimism that the EU, Britain and taoiseach Leo Varadkar have demonstrated about a solution still being found suggests a “traditional Irish fudge” may be on the cards.

Bombardier, the north's biggest manufacturer, said that rather than a customs union with the Irish Republic to preserve boundary-free travel, its Belfast operation, which employs 4,200 people, would find its day-to-day imports tied up in red tape and delays.

Most of the parts it imports come via the British mainland, through the ports of Liverpool and Southampton, whether from UK suppliers, European suppliers or from North America and China, with just a small number of items flown in via Dublin airport, he said.

And Mr Ryan said the company has little to gain in terms of preserving border-free access to the Republic for its workforce, since it overwhelmingly recruits from Northern Ireland itself.

“We're not like Airbus, which wants to be able to move people between France, Germany, Spain and the UK. Most of our employees are local to Belfast. We have very few from the mainland and even fewer from the south,” he added.

On the issue of a possible fudged solution, he said: “A certain constructive ambiguity has allowed us to move on and go to the next step before, and I expect that this will be much the same. In the current situation that might mean a blurring of the customs and border issue to allow trade talks to begin."

Thousands of Belfast posts hang in the balance if a proposed 300 per cent duty on exports to the US is imposed on the Canadian-owned firm's new C-Series jet, even though European firm Airbus has acquired a majority stake in the jets programme in an arrangement which could see them avoid tariffs.

Production of the C-Series (its wings are made in Belfast) will be extended to the US state of Alabama, which bosses from Airbus and Bombardier believe will mean it avoids import tariffs.

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI, addressing MPs, demanded: "The UK needs to stand up for all these plane-making jobs, whether they are Boeing jobs or Bombardier jobs."

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