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Matters Of The Day – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:15 pm on 24th February 2009.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:15 pm, 24th February 2009

Mr Ian Paisley Jnr has sought leave to make a statement on a matter that fulfils the criteria set out in Standing Order 24. Mr Ian Paisley Jnr will speak for up to three minutes on the subject. I shall then call other Members from the North Antrim constituency, who will also have up to three minutes in which to speak on the matter. There will be no opportunities for interventions, questions or a vote on the matter. I will not take any points of order until the item of business is concluded. If that is clear, we shall proceed.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr DUP

Wrightbus, the international bus manufacturer, is one of Northern Ireland’s most well established family-run businesses. Indeed, it is a third generation business. Unfortunately, today it announced 235 redundancies.

The Wrightbus brand is known across the world: it is known for its London double-deckers on the mainland; for its Ulsterbus vehicles here; and, in Hong Kong, for the Goldliner. It is a major employer and manufacturer, which provides skilled employment for many in Northern Ireland.

The jobs losses that were announced today will mean a loss of some £6 million in our local wage bill. That will have a significant — in fact, crippling — impact on such towns as Ballymena and on many other towns and businesses in County Antrim. Many engineering businesses in County Antrim supplied Wrightbus. Tonight, those companies will be in turmoil, because of what those job losses will mean for them.

The recession will be no respecter of jobs, standing or ability; its ravages will strike anywhere. This House must send out a message of solidarity to the many people in Northern Ireland who will not have a job after today. Those people will feel lost and all at sea; they will not know what the future holds for them.

If devolution is to mean anything, the Assembly will have to take a practical stand on these issues. In a statement released this afternoon Wrightbus represent­atives said that they would like the Executive and the Assembly do all that they can to help. That means that they want assistance with knocking on doors for other international contracts and with the reskilling and retraining of those who will become unemployed as a result of today’s announcement.

Wrightbus runs a remarkable apprenticeship scheme, which should be supported at this critical time. I have spoken to Arlene Foster and Sir Reg Empey, who said that they will do all that they can to help those affected. They will stand shoulder to shoulder with those people who were part of a productive and lucrative workforce, but who are now staring into recession.

I hope that the Assembly will stand with us, support us and help County Antrim as it goes through this terrible problem.

Photo of Declan O'Loan Declan O'Loan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I give my assent to every word that Mr Paisley Jnr said about today’s most unfortunate announcement regarding a consultation period of 90 days in relation to the likely loss of 235 jobs in Wrightbus. The company employs more than 1,000 people, so it is a drastic announcement.

The effects are felt throughout the company because a selection process has to happen, and many workers will be asking themselves whether they will lose their job. The effects of the selection process on the income of those workers will be great. Gone are the days when they could easily have got a job elsewhere because everyone knows that job opportunities are now few and far between.

The job losses will have a considerable effect on local suppliers. Wrightbus spread its search for supplies in the local area, which provided a tremendous economic boost for that area.

The news from such a successful and innovative company will come as a shock to the manufacturing sector. Companies have to respond when their order books are reduced, and that is what is happening in the current international economic environment.

Unfortunately, we will hear more such announce­ments. It creates an imperative for the Assembly, and I strongly support Mr Paisley Jnr’s comments in that regard. The company is seeking support from the Assembly for investment in research and development and for apprenticeship training.

We should listen to the message from Wrightbus, which is speaking for the whole manufacturing sector. My party will be saying a lot more in forthcoming days about measures that the Assembly can adopt and the funding package that will accompany those.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Today’s announcement, which is the reason why we have had to come to the Chamber today, is another reality check for us all about the economic uncertainty and challenges that face us. It is clear from the announcement by Wrightbus that there are no bounds to the economic challenges that we face or the ways in which the economic downturn can affect us all. Wrightbus has been the linchpin of the economic prosperity of Ballymena and North Antrim for a considerable number of years.

My colleague Ian Paisley Jnr rightly referred not only to the excellent workforce that we have in Ballymena and the issue around the apprenticeships schemes, the leadership skills and the skills base that that company has developed over many years, but to those other subcontractors — the smaller, yet vitally important, engineering companies that have been built up and have taken on additional workforce. Our thoughts are with such companies; I can think of a couple in Ballymoney, in my constituency, that have invested very heavily on the basis of the contracts that Wrightbus has been able to secure. As we have said, tonight there will be a question mark over those companies, and they will be asking what is going to happen.

Wrightbus has today announced 235 possible redundancies; however, I do not want to become the prophet of doom — we have to try to be as positive as we can be, despite the awful circumstances that we find ourselves in. The Executive and Assembly need to collectively reassure those companies and the affected families that the help and assistance that will be required will be there.

When we think of innovation, we think of Wrightbus. When I travel to London with my family, they become somewhat annoyed that every time I see a Wrightbus, I refer to the fact that it was made in Ballymena. Wrightbus was, and is, a brand that we are proud of. There is an issue now for the Assembly to prove not only to the people in Wrightbus and everyone affected by that announcement, but to Northern Ireland plc, that the devolved Administration can, when faced with a challenge, rise to it, difficult and demanding though it may be. We should not run away from that challenge and, with the collective goodwill of the House and the Executive, I hope that we can be of help and assistance. Our thoughts and prayers are with not only all those affected by the announcement of the 90-day consultation period, but the entire workforce of Wrightbus.

Photo of Ian Paisley Ian Paisley DUP

This is a sad day. I have just come from Ballymena, and, although this is a sad day, it is a day on which we must face up to this as a challenge. It is all right for us to say what we are saying, because it has to be said, but we must now face up to the challenge.

Some years ago, Mr Wright and his friends faced up to a challenge in Ballymena, and they did a very good job of work. Everywhere that I have been in the world, I have talked about the Wright brothers and the way that their company developed. However, today we are facing the problem of people having lost their jobs and the signal that more people will lose their jobs. What are we going to do about that?

I trust that the Ministers concerned, along with all the parties in the House, will get together and devise ways whereby we can do what the firm is asking us to do, especially in areas where there is a possibility of securing employment, such as apprenticeships. What will we do? We must come up with a practical solution — something that is workable and which we will have to put our minds and hearts into. I believe that that can be done.

Ballymena is not the only area that will be affected: a lot of people outside the town and further up towards the County Antrim coast are affected. It affects us all. I trust that the House and the Executive will be able to find a way to face that challenge, and other challenges that will come. Some other Member, not far hence, may soon be standing up for his or her constituency. We are all in this business, and we must all face the challenge. However, we do not want words; we want actions. We need a plan, we need to know how we are going to work out that plan, and we need to carry it forth. We will have many discouragements, and many people will ask, “What is the use of doing that?” Every possible way must be found to try to counteract the bitter and terrible situation that has arisen in Ballymena and that will arise across the Province.

I believe that, if we can get the determination and the strength of the brains that we have in the Province behind the same cause, we can pull ourselves out of a very challenging and sad situation.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance 3:45 pm, 24th February 2009

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I speak as a representative of a constituency that is adjacent to North Antrim, and who has constituents who are employed by Wrightbus. On that basis, I would have wished to have been able to contribute to the discussion by more than my presence. Will you, Mr Deputy Speaker, raise with the Speaker the question of how issues such as the dreadful news from Wrightbus, which cross constituency boundaries, can be addressed properly under the procedure for matters of the day?

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Member knows that he is more than welcome to raise that matter, and any other matter, with the Speaker.

The final item on the Order Paper is the Adjournment. Mr Mark Durkan has indicated that he no longer wishes to raise the matter of the North West Gateway Initiative in Foyle, and he is not in his place.

Adjourned at 3.48 pm.