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Wrightbus closure

The wages of sin - penury for the workers

1 October 2019

Some years ago the eldest son of the Wrightbus family, and also the chief pastor of the Green Pastures church, subsidised by the Ballymena company, said in an interview that he had invited God onto the board of their company and this would ensure success. When the merry-go-round of Wrightbus, the evangelical church, and British investment funds came to a stop it appears that God had walked off with the money.

The story of Wrightbus seems a metaphor for Northern Irish society and industry. A group of religious fanatics milk a company to build an Evangelical Church. Just how extreme a sect this was was indicated when Belfast pastor James McConnell,  prosecuted for Islamophobia, turned up to support the management. Wages are frozen for many years while  millions continue to pour out of the company. Workers are encouraged to support the evangelical sect, copper fastening loyalty to the company and, although the workers are unionized, the union prefers to sit quietly in the background.

So the capitalists endorse religious fundamentalism, squeeze the workers, transfer the profits to a fundamentalist sect, and the British government through Invest NI subsidise the whole operation. To add insult to injury investors willing to buy the company are put off when they are told that the land is held separately. A rescue falls through over a demand that investors pay £1 million a year in rent which will likely go to the church. The workers protest outside the church but, in the absence of unions and socialist parties, this comes across more as a split in the congregation than an independent mobilisation by the workers.

The collapse of the company, followed by closure of a section of Caterpillar in West Belfast, indicates a growing crisis for the economy in the North of Ireland. The collapse of heavy industry has been ongoing for over  50 years. Wrightbus was much lauded as a symbol of success but essentially it was a bus body company that are assembled their bodies on other major manufacturers' chassis rather than being a full-blown vehicle manufacturer. Over the years economic policy has veered from attempts to attract transnational finance to generous subsidies to local small scale industry. Both strategies have failed miserably and the promise of an economic peace dividend is long forgotten.  The North has the lowest productivity and wage rates in all UK regions, the economy is being hard hit by the welfare reforms agreed by the last Stormont administration and the effects of Brexit are looming. Just as with the political promises the economic promises of the Good Friday Agreement have turned to ashes. This  creates something of a problem for Sinn Fein, the trade union movement and the tiny reformist left.

Up until recently the standard call was for a return of the Stormont administration. This call determinedly ignored the total lack of any progressive actions by The Stormont administration and the long history of sectarianism and corruption when it was running. The call has become impossible to make as it becomes clear that Stormont will not be set up again under the present political conditions. A new call emerged with the threatened closure of the shipyard. The call was for Britain to nationalisethe industry. That call has been dropped with the promise of work following a giveaway sale to energy company Infrastrata. The new statements from unions and political parties are the usual incoherent drivel that you get following industrial closure. Someone must do something! Meetings must be held! The government must help! The flurry of statements usually ends with a few extra retraining places and no industry.

So what should socialists and trade unionists say about job redundancies? The background context is that the Northern  economy is still utterly dominated by Britain. That economy no longer delivers for even a section of the workforce and is continuing to decline. The call for nationalisation makes perfect sense in establishing that the British government are responsible for the situation and demanding that the workers have a right to employment. Attention should be drawn to the massive subsidies offered to transnational companies. Any grants should be accompanied by an associated fine and seizure of facilities if the companies withdraw. The invest NI subsidy to Wrightbus was a flagrant misuse of public funds. Misdirected funds from the evangelical "charity" should be returned to the public purse. Trade unionists and socialists should come together to publicly investigate Invest NI and other agencies and demand payments directly to workers cooperatives. Much of the aura of prosperity in thelocal economy comes from a tourism and hospitality sector that is heavily subsidised from public funds. The unions should support further occupations of failing industries and could demand government funds be used directly in industrial development for a green economy aimed at sustainable  sustainable economic development.

Above all there should be an end to tiptoeing around unionism. although Irish unity would not resolve economic problems - the 26 County state economy is just as dependent on imperialism as the North - Irish unity with both help rationalise development and also allow the unity of the working class on which future progress towards socialism must be based.

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