Northern Ireland news

Theresa May caught 'asleep at the wheel' as Bombardier loses first stage of trade dispute

Aerospace manufacturer Bombardier employs more than 4,000 at its Belfast factories and was due to begin delivering a blockbuster order for up to 125 new jets to Atlanta-based Delta Airlines next year
Picture by Niall Carson /PA
Michael McHugh

BRITISH Prime Minister Theresa May has been accused of being "asleep at the wheel" after the US slapped a punitive import duty on planes made by one of Northern Ireland's biggest employers.

Unions have warned that thousands of jobs could be in jeopardy after the US Department of Commerce (DoC) imposed an interim tariff of nearly 220% on a new model of passenger jet manufactured by Bombardier.

More than 4,000 people are employed in Belfast by the Canadian multinational and thousands more jobs in Northern Ireland are supported through the manufacturer's supply chain, according to trade unionists.

Theresa May had lobbied Donald Trump over the dispute sparked by complaints from rival Boeing that Bombardier received unfair state subsidies from the UK and Canada, allowing the sale of airliners at below cost prices in the US.

The prime minister said she was "bitterly disappointed" by a US Department of  Commerce decision.

Announcing the regulator's preliminary finding on Tuesday, US secretary of commerce Wilbur Ross said the subsidisation of goods by foreign governments was something that the President's administration "takes very seriously".

Bombardier labelled the determination "absurd", while in its response the UK Government said the statement was "disappointing" and pledged to defend UK interests "at the very highest levels".

However, unions warned the preliminary determination was "unlikely" to be overturned by Mr Trump, who has been clear in his aim to fiercely protect American jobs, casting a shadow over the industry's future in Northern Ireland.

DUP leader Arlene Foster said she would the use party's influence with the British government to press the issue further.

She told Sky News: "Unfortunately, it's not a surprise. What we must do now is to continue to work with our own government, with the American government, with the Canadian government in trying to get Boeing to see sense in relation to this issue.

"This is a completely unjustifiable complaint and therefore we have to work with them to make them see that, and to work with the company as well.

"Obviously, we are very concerned about the jobs here in Belfast and Northern Ireland.

"The prime minister herself spoke to President Trump when she was recently in America about this very issue because everyone realises how important Bombardier is to Northern Ireland, and we will use our influence with the government to make sure that that continues."

Ross Murdoch, the GMB union's national officer, said the initial ruling was a "hammer blow" to Belfast and risked sending shock waves through Northern Ireland's economy.

"Theresa May has been asleep at the wheel when she could and should have been fighting to protect these workers. It's high time she woke up," he said.

Another 9,400 supply chain jobs could be wiped out in Northern Ireland on top of those directly employed at the plant, Mr Murdoch warned.

"That's 14,000 people in Northern Ireland now in jeopardy," he said.

Jimmy Kelly, Unite Regional Secretary, said: "The decision taken by the US department of commerce was not unexpected - unfortunately it is unlikely to be overturned by president Trump whose protectionist tendencies are well-known.

"The threat of punitive tariffs on the C-Series will cast a shadow over Bombardier's future unless the company can source alternative and substantial sales outside the US market."

Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster pressed Mrs May to raise the issue with Mr Trump when the two met in New York earlier in September.

The DUP's 10 MPs are propping up the PM's minority administration in the House of Commons and are expected to play a crucial role during upcoming Brexit business in Parliament.

Mrs Foster said the DoC's determination was "very disappointing", but added that it was not the end of the process.

"The C-Series is a hugely innovative aircraft that is vital to Bombardier's operations in Belfast," she said.

"It is this innovation that sets the C-Series apart and it is not in direct competition with Boeing."

The alleged unfair subsidy arose after Northern Ireland's power sharing administration and the UK Government pledged to invest almost £135 million in the establishment of the C-Series manufacturing site in Belfast.

The programme also received one billion US dollars from the Canadian provincial government in Quebec in 2015 when its fortunes appeared to be ailing.

Boeing's complaint said it was seeking a "level playing field" for global competitors, but Bombardier accused its rival of hypocrisy.

Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable called on Mrs May to follow the example of her Canadian counterpart Justin Trudeau and "stand up" to the US.

He said: "Rather than simply expressing 'bitter disappointment', our government should be out there fighting for vital British manufacturing jobs in Belfast.

"May must support Trudeau's administration in standing up to protectionist bullying from Donald Trump and his crude 'America First' philosophy.

"Do we really believe the US will save us from Brexit with a comprehensive trade deal, when this is how they deal with fair and free international competition?"

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