In the first of a special three-part series following the announcement that the Dundee Michelin plant faces closure in 2020, Michael Alexander visited Ballymena in Northern Ireland to find out how the community there is coping with the recent closure of their Michelin factory which led to the loss of 840 highly skilled jobs.
It’s a mid-week Champions League football night in Charlie’s bar on William Street in the centre of Ballymena and the traditional hostelry is living up to its reputation from locals that it is the “place to go” if we want to speak to former workers from the town’s recently closed Michelin plant.
But as soon as the lager and Guinness drinking men bantering at the bar learn we have travelled over from Dundee, we become the centre of their attention and most are only too happy to share their experiences of working at Michelin and tell us why they are “not surprised” that Dundee’s Michelin looks set to close.
They also speak of former colleagues who chose to relocate from Ballymena to Dundee – and now face the “devastation” of being made redundant again.
Located 28 miles north of Belfast in County Antrim, Ballymena, with a population of 29,000, is the eighth largest town in Northern Ireland. Incorporating a large rural area, the largely Unionist town used to host Ireland’s largest one-day agricultural show at the Ballymena Showgrounds.
During the latter half of the 20th Century the town, like many other once prosperous industrial centres in Northern Ireland, experienced economic decline, which has accelerated since 2010.
Proprietor Charlie Havelin, 51, was hospitality manager at Ballymena’s Michelin Athletic Club – in the grounds of the factory – for 17.5 years before being made redundant and setting up his pub which opened on October 1.
He said it’s the “feeling” in Ballymena that the closure of their factory – announced in November 2015 and closed in August this year with the loss of 850 jobs – was used as the “blueprint” of how to close other factories.
“The feeling amongst ex-workers here is that the 2.5 year period of time they gave from their announcement to the actual closure in Ballymena was too long,” he said.
“So to see that in Dundee the closure date is 2020 – basically just over a year from the announcement – we feel they are kind of learning by their mistakes.
“That’s the feeling of the ex-workers here. That they have learned to make the process shorter. But it’s like a domino effect: Burnley (which closed in 2002), Ballymena, Dundee – if I was working at the last remaining UK Michelin plant in Stoke I’d be very worried!”
Charlie said there had been “rumours for years” about the viability of the Ballymena Michelin plant amid concerns about high electricity prices.
But the day the announcement actually came, it was still a “big shock”. He was on a day off when his phone “started to go berserk” with colleagues telling him they had been called to a mass meeting to be told the closure news.
He said the letter given to staff then and the letter given to staff in Dundee three years later was “almost identical”.
“I know three brothers who walked out the gates with their father that day – all employees dealt a devastating blow,” he said.
“There was a whole family suddenly having a hell of a good income taken and not knowing what they were going to do in two years’ time. There were a lot of families like that.”
Charlie managed to set up the pub after a brewery contact told him about the lease. He knows he was lucky. “I closed the door at Michelin on the Friday and turned the key here to open on the Monday,” he said. “It worked out okay for me.”
However, for the wider community he said it has been “devastating” given the closure of the Japanese-owned JTI Gallaher cigarette factory in Ballymena last October with the loss of 877 jobs and the building company Patton Group entering administration with the loss of 320 jobs a few years before that.
Ballymena-based coachbuilder Wrightbus continues being a major employer in the town with 1,560 staff and bought the 100-acre JTI site in 2016. However, the economy was dealt a further hammer blow this year when the company announced 200 redundancies – blaming market uncertainty for hitting new orders.
“Ballymena lost three of its main employers in the course of three years,” he said.
“A spinning mill had gone long before that. That’s why you go down the town it’s all charity shops, coffee shops and barbers – because no one has any disposable income. Drink and drugs are rife in the town – but they have always been there. It’ll be the same for Dundee. There’s the knock-on effect with subcontractors struggling. It’s a common problem but this has made it worse.”
Charlie said at least 20 Ballymena families were given relocation packages to Dundee with others to Stoke and to the continent.
He understood they received an additional £25,000 over four years to relocate.
But because people were given four year packages that took them to 2020, some believe, rightly or wrongly, it was always in the mind of the company to potentially close Dundee.
If anyone can call the former Michelin plant at Ballymena a family affair then Henry Butler, 64, can.
The former tyre maker worked there for 37 years before taking early retirement in 2013.
His father Owen helped to build the Ballymena factory, which opened in 1969, whilst his brothers Danny, Paddy, Charlie and Shamus, plus a nephew, all worked there.
However, despite efforts to develop new businesses on the site, he fears it will be another 10 years until the “full impact” of Ballymena’s Michelin closure is felt with less career opportunities for youngsters.
“A lot of skill was built up over more than 40 years,” he said. “You can’t buy the knowledge to fix machines etc. But the UK can’t compete with the Far East and their lower wage bills.”
Henry’s brother Paddy, 62, who worked at Michelin Ballymena for 42 years, was also a tyre maker then latterly a repair man.
He said employment opportunities don’t exist for young people nowadays.
“Everyone is cutting costs,” he said, “because they have to.”
He felt particularly sorry for Ballymena families who had relocated to Dundee now to be “left on the scrapheap.”
Ballymena born-and-bred father-of-one Declan O’Hagan, 46, was made redundant in June after 22 years with Michelin.
The former warehouse worker, currently unemployed after a “terrible” spell in a bottling plant, was “shocked” when his plant closed. He was on night shift when the news was broken in a phone call from his boss.
However, he was not too surprised.
“It wasn’t really a surprise,” he said. “We got figures every year of how we were ranked on profitability, production quality, etc. I wasn’t surprised. We got updates. They always blamed it on these imports from Asia. I guess it was still a shock though.”
Declan said that financially he can cope in the short term thanks to a generous redundancy package. He also “can’t fault” Michelin for their help with re-training.
However, having voted to leave the European Union, and increasingly frustrated about the management of Brexit, he remains disillusioned about job opportunities for industry workers like him.
“What is the ordinary guy supposed to do?” he said. “All we can do is hope that petrol doesn’t go up, or heating oil goes up, because it’s crazy. But Brexit –I don’t know enough about it. It’s scary too. I just don’t know and I’m not convinced the people who should know, know either.”
Another man “not surprised” at the Dundee closure announcement is Jimmy Knowles,55, who worked at Michelin, Ballymena for more than 33 years.
The now lorry driver who used to play Dundee, Stoke and Burnley in an annual Michelin golf competition, said many management decisions over the years “didn’t stack up” in Ballymena and he suspects Dundee faces similar pressures.
However, he too empathised with where the alternative manufacturing work was supposed to come from in communities like Dundee.
He added: “There is life after Michelin. But it’s hard for people who’ve put so many years in to appreciate what they are going to do next.”
Another former Ballymena Michelin employee, who asked not to be identified, also said the company deserved praise for its generous pay offs and support to retrain people. He hoped Dundee staff will be treated just as well if they lose their jobs.
However, he also claimed Michelin management had to shoulder a burden of responsibility for the demise.
Since 2010, Ballymena has seen a decline in its retail and manufacturing sectors.
In November 2012, the Patton Group, a major builder in the borough, entered administration with the loss of 320 jobs.
It was announced in October 2014 that Japanese cigarette manufacture JTI Gallaher would be closing with a loss of 877 jobs. Those doors closed in October last year.
Then in November 2015, French-owned Michelin announced it would be closing its Ballymena factory after almost 50 years, resulting in the loss of up to 850 jobs. The factory officially closed in June this year.
Northern Irish coachbuilder Wrightbus, head quarterd in Ballymena, continues being a major employer with 1560 staff. However, two waves of redundancy have seen around 200 jobs go there this year too. Market uncertainty has been blamed for hitting new orders.
It is hoped that the creation of a manufacturing hub at the former Michelin site will attract businesses to the area.
MICHAEL ALEXANDER COMMENT
When Courier photographer Mhairi Edwards and I were dispatched to Ballymena within hours of news breaking about the plan to close Michelin in Dundee, I must admit that, despite Dundee’s close links with Northern Ireland, the first thing we had to do was find where Ballymena was on a map.
But almost as soon as we parachuted into the Antrim town on a special mission to find out what impact Michelin’s 2015 closure announcement had had there, it quickly became clear that most people had heard of Dundee – and, as well as being incredibly friendly folk, most were also keen to talk.
From the receptionist in our hotel who “used to work in personnel” at Michelin, to the ex-tyre makers in the pub whose former colleagues relocated to Dundee; from a local newsagent who used to serve Michelin workers every morning to a charity shop volunteer whose daughter once had a summer job at Michelin Dundee, just about everyone knew of someone who had either worked in, studied in or visited Dundee – and all felt the Tayside workers’ pain.
Brexit, the current absence of a government at Stormont, and a shifting global economy were all ‘big picture’ issues that many raised as frustrations.
But fundamentally, the main concerns of ex-workers was that basic need to keep a roof over their families’ heads and to give the next generation hope that there might be a future in their home town.
* In Thursday’s Courier, Michael Alexander visits the former Michelin site in Ballymena and speaks to town centre businesses about the impact of the plant’s closure.