Northern Ireland news

Wrightbus workers to picket Green Pastures Church following donations backlash

Workers walk through the gates of the Wrightbus plant in Ballymena, Northern Ireland, as the family-owned firm which built London's distinctive red double decker Routemaster buses is poised to go into administration. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire
Ryan McAleer

DOZENS of people made redundant at Wrightbus in Ballymena yesterday have said they will stage a protest on Sunday morning outside the evangelical church founded by the busmaker’s largest shareholder.

The loss of 1,200 jobs at the bus-maker on Wednesday morning has prompted a backlash against Jeff Wright over the financial contributions made to his Green Pastures church and the new multi-million pound campus being built on the edge of Ballymena.

While the company has blamed falling demand for its products, many former staff members have hit out at how the company had been managed in recent years.

But much of the anger has centred on the £16m paid largely to Jeff Wright’s Green Pastures church between 2012 and 2017 by the Cornerstone Group, the parent company of Wrightbus Ltd.

Green Pastures Church is led by Wrightbus's majority shareholder Jeff Wright. Picture by Stephen Davison/Pacemaker

North Antrim Sinn Fein MLA Philip McGuigan yesterday called for questions over the finances of the firm to be “rigorously investigated”.

One ex-worker said yesterday that up to 250 people will take part in Sunday’s protest.

Ian Knox cartoon 26/9/19 

It’s understood that Jeff Wright did not appear before workers when news of the redundancies were announced. However Sir William Wright, who co-founded the company with his father in 1946, was given a round of applause by workers after he delivered an emotional address.

Read More: Unions urge PM to intervene as Wrightbus lays off 1,200 staff

While Sir William and his daughters, Amanda Knowles and Lorraine Rock are listed as the directors of The Cornerstone Group, the major shareholder is Sir William’s son, Jeff.

Once a director of Wrightbus, the ex-soccer player appeared to step away from the day-to-day running of the manufacturing business five years ago. Officially, he resigned as a director in 2014.

But according to the last annual return filed by The Cornerstone Group, Jeff Wright still owns 68% of the shares in the bus firm’s parent company.

Just over a quarter (26 per cent) is owned by the Wright Evangelical Trust, a registered charity.

Read More: Analysis: What next for workers at Wrightbus

Two years ago, Jeff Wright told the Irish Times: “We made God a shareholder in the business – 26 per cent of Wrights is owned by an evangelical trust – in order to make sure He was central in everything the Wrights company does.”

Jeff Wright’s interests in recent years appear to have been focused on the evangelical church he founded next to the company’s Galgorm complex in 2007.

In 2012, as Wrightbus launched its new double decker bus for London and sealed a £41m bus deal in Singapore, Jeff Wright unveiled his £110m plan for a new church campus on a site just south of Ballymena.

Acquired for £4m, the 97-acre plot at Ballee was valued at £75m at the height of the property boom in 2007.

Green Pasture’s Gateway project plan includes housing, social enterprise units, education facilities and a 5,000 seater auditorium. Last year it axed a plan for a 60,000 sq ft supermarket on the site.

Work on the early phases of the project have been carried out by Ballymena firm Martin & Hamilton. But the work appeared to stall at the site over the summer.

The company accounts filed by Green Pastures show that as of April 30 2018, the church had £4.77m cash in the bank, of which £4.65m was set aside in a restricted fund for the Gateway project.

While Green Pastures generates income from a number of social enterprises, including Advanced Engineering, which supplied Wrightbus, most of its income comes from donations.

The biggest donor appears to be the family company Jeff Wright largely owns.

Last year the Wrights Group declared an 86% collapse in its pre-tax profits from £10.7m to £1.5m for the year to April 30 2017.

In the same financial reporting period, the Wright Group’s parent firm The Cornerstone Group, reported a pre-tax loss of £1.73m.

Despite the loss, the company donated £4.157m to fund its “commitment to Christian, evangelical and other charitable activities”.

It brought the group’s total contribution to such causes between 2012 and 2017 to £16,043,573.

According to accounts lodged by the Green Pastures church at the end of April 2018, it received £4.186m from individuals and corporate bodies.

“Workers, their families and the local community will be wondering about the fact that over recent years £16m has been donated by Wrightbus parent company The Cornerstone Group to a number of Christian charities,” said Philp McGuigan.

“I have asked a number of questions of the Department for Communities and the LPS seeking information on the sale of land at Ballee a number of years ago.”

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