Belfast, Bombardier, and a new economic strategy

The prospect of multiple plant closures provides an opportunity to revive Ireland's rich history of worker co-operatives.

Patrick Doyle
15 May 2019, 10.09am
Image: Brian Lawless/PA Archive/PA Images

The recent economic news from Belfast is not good. The uncertainty surrounding the future of Bombardier aerospace factories in Northern Ireland has placed up to 4,000 jobs in serious doubt. The Canadian business announced it has plans to consolidate operations and therefore sell off the plants it currently runs in Northern Ireland and Morocco.

The prospect of plant closures is alarming. The jobs represented something of a success story in Northern Ireland in recent years, offering high productivity returns and wages paid above the average rate on offer across the country. Moreover the closure of four factories – Belfast, Newtownabbey, Dunmurry and Newtownards – holds adverse implications across the region and raises the possibility of further job losses further along the supply chains.

The lack of a functioning government in Stormont is once again highlighted. The political parties provide no reassurances or even the pretence of representing the interests of the labour force. At a time when political leadership is required to speak on the behalf of it constituents it is found sadly wanting.

The fallout from Brexit is generally assumed to be the major factor in the decision to withdraw from Northern Ireland. In the recent past Bombardier claimed that the prospect of Brexit made it likely that the Northern Irish operations would be reviewed. However, in the recent statement outlining the sell-off, Brexit was not mentioned, indicating that the decision is more likely to be a reflection of the global status of the aerospace industry more generally.

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It is easy to feel despair and impotence in the headwinds of global business. Ever since the Thatcherite consensus inaugurated a new industrial strategy – one which amounted to picking winners and allowing whole sectors of the UK economy to go to the wall – the role of the state as a robust guarantor has declined significantly.

However, what if there was another way? How might a different economic strategy offer potential answers that provide greater security around jobs and economic stability? The answer lies in how workplaces are organised.

Worker voice

Unite, the trade union, is currently looking for buyers to take on the plants. As I write, firms such as Airbus and GKN have been identified as potential marks. However, a more sensible solution would be to look to the workers themselves. Converting the plants into co-operative businesses offers one empowering solution. After all, having the firm run by the very experts who currently operate the plant would make eminently perfect sense.

Ireland, north and south, has a long and important history in the promotion of the co-operative movement with its associated values of one member one vote, autonomy and independence, and concern for the community. From the establishment of Robert Owen-inspired co-operative societies across Ulster in the 1830s to the successful dominance of co-operatives in driving agricultural development throughout the twentieth century, a different way of doing business has long underpinned Ireland’s economic story – even if it is not always something that is celebrated.

Nor is worker control a radical idea elsewhere. Mondragon in the Basque region represents one of the more famous examples of worker ownership as a success story. A massive industrial corporation, Mondragon is defined by principles of economic democracy. It is an industrial giant owned and controlled by its employees. This makes a real difference. Mondragon was able to weather economic depression after 2008 through an agreement to reduce hours of all workers rather than lay off a minority – thereby keeping all members economically active.

Closer to home, the excitement surrounding the Preston Model also offers another example of how dramatic economic regeneration can take place when enough people are committed to swapping an extractive economic model that sees value created in one area outsourced to another for one that includes as many locally-based stakeholders as possible. It is no accident that Preston was named the most improved city last year. The growth of worker co-operatives that promise to generate social value as they bid for public sector contracts is but one aspect of a wider vision. In prospect at the moment is the creation of a regional development bank that provides the necessary financial investment required to further the socially responsible economy.

This is not to suggest that conversion into worker ownership is a straightforward task. Legal complexities and lack of monetary support can be off-putting, but ultimately if there is a political will these can be arranged. In the end worker takeover requires employee buyout. The lack of financial means is one major obstacle in the way of transitioning to new models of ownership. However, in order to facilitate such a buyout, one potential pathway resides in the establishment of regional development banks as part of a necessarily ambitious vision of strategic regional policymaking.

Preston and the Basque Country offer exciting glimpses of a potential future, but they also require serious commitment and genuine support. But why shouldn’t Belfast be a site where bold economic visions take hold?

Co-operative Alternatives, based in Belfast, have been promoting a Community Shares programme and this might represent one way in which finance for a worker-led takeover bid could be started.

The lack of a functioning Stormont Assembly makes the task of encouraging bold political thinking appear forlorn. But out of necessity a new vision might emerge. As the recent local election results show there is an appetite for a way of doing things differently in the North. If nothing else, a real debate about a more co-operative economic strategy has the potential to speak to people whether they are Orange or Green.

Whatever else the tale of Bombardier might represent, it clearly shows that the dominant way of conducting business of the moment is not working for the people it employs. Unless something radical occurs, once gone, the plants are unlikely to return.

Perhaps after twenty-one years of calls to strengthen institutions of political co-operation in the north, it is also about time that these matters were tempered with action towards building a more democratic economic settlement.

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