THOUSANDS of Bombardier workers were hoping for the best last night after learning every job could be axed.
Belfast’s biggest employer could be hit with punishing US taxes forcing it to quit Northern Ireland.
The livelihoods of 4,200 local staff, and scores of client companies, are on the line if the threatened 220 per cent import tariff kicks in.
That potential withdrawal of the Canadian-owned firm from East Belfast would amount to one of the biggest jobs calamities ever to hit the region.
Downing Street said Theresa May had been left “bitterly disappointed” by the US Department of Commerce decision to impose the sky-high duty on the planes.
And Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said it was “absurd” and could even cut UK purchases from Boeing, whose complaint against Bombardier sparked the crisis.
The taxes would triple the cost of the state-of-the-art new C-Series passenger jet, built in part in Belfast, being sold into the US.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said the decision, made late on Tuesday, was “very disappointing” but “not the end of the process.”
Writing in The Sun she said she was “fully committed” to overturning the initial ruling.”
US officials imposed the duty after rival aircraft maker Boeing complained of unfair subsidies — amounting to around £1bn — for Bombardier from the Canadian and British governments.
The dispute, among two of the world’s biggest airline firms, is of such scale it is set to rock relationships between Donald Trump, Canada and the UK.
Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable said: “Theresa May must support Trudeau’s administration in standing up to protectionist bullying from Donald Trump and his crude ‘America First’ philosophy.
But announcing the preliminary finding, US Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the subsidising of goods by foreign governments was something Trump’s administration “takes very seriously”.
Bombardier, which secured money from the UK when C-Series sales were feared to be flatlining after launch, said the US firm was using trade laws to “stifle competition”.
Davy Thompson of Unite union said staff in Northern Ireland were in line to become “collateral damage.”
He said: “It really is a hammer blow. The C-Series is the future of Belfast. What has happened here is unbelievable.”.
The tax against Bombardier — which employs 28,000 workers worldwide — will only be demanded if the US International Trade Commission rules in Boeing’s favour. That decision is expected next year.
Yesterday Boeing — the world’s largest aerospace company — said it was upholding trade fairness rules around government subsidies and had no desire to damage its rival.
The US Department of Commerce is due to make a second tariff ruling on 5 October, but will decide in February if it will uphold the penalty or remove it.
America’s Delta Airlines yesterday said it believed the Bombardier arrangements should not trouble US businesses.
It said neither Boeing nor any other US firm produced 100-110 seat aircraft to compete with the C-Series.
Unite’s Jimmy Kelly said: “The UK government must now intervene to secure orders from British carriers for Bombardier aircraft. They should also immediately review all contracts with Boeing.
“If other countries are going to erect protectionist barriers to UK companies, our government needs to be proactive in response.”
Alliance East Belfast MLA Chris Lyttle said there was a “profoundly serious” issue at hand after the “astounding ruling”, but that the decision was so far “preliminary.”
He said: “I have constituents, friends and family employed by Bombardier and I am acutely aware of the concern that exists amongst staff.
“This ruling could have severe implications, not only for jobs in NI but for international trade with the United States, particularly in the aerospace sector.
“The US International Trade Commission must now find that as Boeing did not compete for the Delta contract awarded to Bombardier C Series and does not serve this market, no injury has occurred.” The Bombardier plant, which launched in 1989, is by far the most important manufacturer left in Belfast.
The factory — previously owned by Shorts — has been a pillar of Belfast’s economy for decades.
East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson said: “You can’t overstate the significance of Bombardier to our regional economy.
“It’s the largest high-tech manufacturer in Northern Ireland. But it’s the main part of our aerospace, defence and security industry as well. Some 1,000 of the plant’s employees work on carbon fibre wings for the C-Series at a specially-built £520m plant at Queen’s Island.
Finished wings are sailed from Belfast harbour for assembly in Canada. Haley Dunne, Director of Public Affairs at the firm, said: “The UK government understands very much what is at stake here and the importance of the C-Series programme.”
In Belfast yesterday Defence Secretary Michael Fallon warned the UK’s relationship with Boeing, which provides helicopters and other aircraft to the British military, was on the line.
He said: “Boeing has significant defence contracts with us and still expects to win further contracts.
“This kind of behaviour could jeopardise our future relationship.
“We don’t want to do that. Boeing is an important investor in the United Kingdom, an important employer in the United Kingdom. But we would prefer this kind of dispute to be settled on a negotiated basis.”
Staff at the plant in Belfast yesterday said they had been asked not to comment on what is an ongoing issue.
One man said: “The feeling is the same no matter what you do in there. It’s no way to live, to be living in the dark like that.”
Arlene Foster, Leader of the DUP on Bombardier
WITHOUT knowing the full context, many people in Northern Ireland could be forgiven for wondering why a trade dispute between US and Canadian companies and a tariff imposed by the US Department of Commerce could be so important to us here.
It is only when the knowledge that the dispute involves Bombardier and their Belfast factory that everyone can fully understand just how important this trade dispute is to Northern Ireland.
The factory is situated in East Belfast and is one of our biggest employers but even more significantly is by far the largest in terms of the highly-skilled jobs provided.
The dispute centres around a complaint by Boeing on the deal to supply C-Series jets to Delta Air Lines. What many of us find so disappointing about the ruling and what makes the initial complaint so unjustifiable is that Bombardier were not in direct competition with Boeing for the Delta order. That is something pointed out by Delta Air Lines themselves.
The complaint is also bad for the wider aerospace industry.
It holds up the opportunity for people to experience a product that leads the world in areas such as fuel efficiency.
Further than that however is that it appears to be a simple anti-competitive move; an attempt by the much larger Boeing to wipe out a smaller company.
This is not the end of the road however and it is important that we all remain focused on the next steps in this process.
During the next weeks and months, it is vital that efforts to find a resolution are continued.
I am fully committed to working with the Government to see this initial ruling overturned or alternatively convince Boeing to reconsider this unjustifiable course of action.
That will mean continuing to work with the Business Secretary, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary who, over the course of the last number of months worked hard lobbying both Boeing and their US government counterparts.
Indeed, the Prime Minister also raised the issue directly with President Trump during her visit to Washington.
The DUP will use our influence with the Government to ensure such efforts continue. I spoke with Theresa May yesterday on the need to work together on this issue. I am pleased she gave her commitment to work with me to secure jobs in Belfast.
The Government have been clear that Boeing’s position is not what is expected of a long-term partner to the UK.
It also happened that the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was speaking in Belfast when he warned Boeing that its behaviour could jeopardise future UK defence contracts.
I believe this underscores a recognition on the part of our government about how important this issue is and I welcome that continued support.
Bombardier is critical to our economy, but we also cannot forget those most personally impacted by this ongoing dispute. It is not just the 1,000 workers at Bombardier directly linked to the C-Series but the many companies further down the supply chain.
I want to assure all those families facing such uncertainty, as well as the wider public in Northern Ireland that this issue will continue to be top of my agenda over the coming weeks and months.