Northern Ireland

New York pension fund challenges the owners of Belfast aerospace plant over religious breakdown of its workforce

Spirit AeroSystems bought Bombardier's Belfast plant in 2020
Spirit AeroSystems bought Bombardier's Belfast plant in 2020

A powerful US-based pension fund has challenged the owners of a Belfast aerospace manufacturer to provide "information on its hiring practices".

The New York State Pension Fund, which owns $15.3m (£11.9m) worth of stock in Spirit AeroSystems, contacted the Kansas-based company after it emerged that fewer than one in five of workers at the firm, formerly known as Shorts, are Catholic.

The most recent figures show that 81.2 per cent of the 2,000 workers at the former Bombardier-owned plant in east Belfast are Protestant and 'other' compared to 18.8 per cent Catholic, whereas regionally the two denominations' representation in the workforce is roughly equal.

The number of Catholics on the company's payroll increased by eight percentage points over the three decades since Bombardier bought Shorts in 1989.

Spirit has said that since it bought Bombardier's Belfast business in 2020 it has been committed to workforce diversity.

One of the largest retirement funds in the US, the New York State Pension Fund's total investments are valued at around $270 billion (£210bn). 

In 2008 during a trip to the US, the then first and deputy first ministers Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness announced that the fund planned to invest $150m in infrastructure projects in the north, including energy, waste management, water and ports. 

However, despite opening an office in Belfast's Cathedral Quarter, it failed to commit money to a single project.

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In the latest development, first reported by the Belfast Media Group, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has challenged Spirit over the religious breakdown of its workforce in Belfast.

A spokesperson for the fund told The Irish News that Mr DiNapoli and the fund "have long held the position that employment discrimination is unacceptable and can hurt long-term value for a company".

"Companies in Northern Ireland must take proactive measures to address under-representation and promote equality of opportunity for individuals from all religious backgrounds," the spokesperson said. 

"We have reached out to the company for information on its hiring practices in Northern Ireland."

North Belfast MP John Finucane said Spirit like other employers "need to address underrepresentation and inequalities in the workplaces".

SDLP councillor Carl Whyte said he found the figures on religious breakdown of the workforce at the plant "staggering".

In a statement, Spirit said that since its acquisition of the Belfast site in 2020, the company "has been and continues to be committed to workforce diversity and providing opportunities for people from all sections of the community". 

"Our hiring practices are based on the merit principle and we encourage applications from all groups in our community, including those under-represented in our workforce," the statement said..