Northern Ireland

NI state papers: Shorts west Belfast plant 'blocked'

Shorts factory
Image caption Shorts proposed opening a factory in west Belfast

A proposal from east Belfast aircraft factory Shorts for the development of a west Belfast plant in 1984 was blocked by the British government, newly released state papers reveal.

The plan was strongly supported by SDLP leader John Hume, the US consul and the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

However, it was finally blocked by the British Treasury who felt it was driven by "sectarian" considerations.

The thinking behind the proposal was outlined in a minute from Secretary of State Jim Prior to Margaret Thatcher on 5 July, 1984.

Mr Prior told the prime minister that he wished to consult cabinet colleagues on a proposal to develop a small manufacturing facility in west Belfast, "aimed at defusing criticism by Irish republicans in the United States of Shorts' recruitment policies".

'Stumbling block'

The plant would use the old DeLorean factory in Twinbrook.

The proposal stalled early on due to a sharp difference of opinion between the Shorts chairman, Sir Philip Foreman, and the Stormont Department of Economic Development.

This emerged in a letter from Mr Foreman to Ken Bloomfield at the Department of Commerce on June 15, 1984, linking the proposed plant to support for the US-based Friends of Ireland in the forthcoming US election campaign.

The Shorts chairman said that "a major stumbling block had been the difference of view between the department and the company on front-end funding for the west Belfast operation".

Mr Foreman said he had understood from Mr Prior that all start-up costs would be met by the government and his board's approval to the scheme was given on that understanding.

Image caption The proposal was backed by Secretary of State Jim Prior

However, it later became clear that the government could not follow this approach, leaving the company to borrow several million pounds to fund the plant.

"As a result, we were unable to help John Hume," he told Mr Bloomfield.

Unless they could resolve the problem it was extremely doubtful whether the June deadline set by the US Consul in Belfast, Sam Bartlett, could be met "in order to help the Friends".

'Surprise and disappointment'

In a note on the file, a Stormont official, M Stevenson, recorded a conversation with Roy McNulty of Shorts who confirmed that the company was not satisfied with the terms of assistance on offer, seeing a gap between what the secretary of state had implied to Sir Philip and what was now being offered by the government.

Until this was resolved, Shorts would not make any announcement.

This prompted a sharp note from Mr Bloomfield to Sir Philip Foreman on 21 June 1984 expressing "surprise and disappointment" at the board's decision to defer an announcement of the west Belfast plant.

He added that the US consul-general had emphasised "the desirability of this before Congress rose for the summer".

Mr Bloomfield rejected any question of 100% state funding, saying that the project was regarded as "a conventional industrial development proposition" for location in west Belfast and thus likely to attract government support at the highest rate, but not to the extent of full funding.

He explained: "It seems to me that such treatment would best protect both the government and the company from any allegations that this was essentially a political, rather than an industrial, decision."

Of the Irish-American dimension, raised by the consul-general and Mr Hume, he added: "I would explain that we are not urging this development upon the company for wider political reasons, for example to earn some goodwill from the Irish-American community, but because we believe that it will prove to be in your commercial interest, particularly in relation to future tranches of the European Distribution Systems Aircraft Programme (EDSA), subject to the decision of Congress."

In a note to Mrs Thatcher on 2 July 1984, Mr Prior said he firmly supported the proposal by Shorts for a "composite facility" in west Belfast "on the commercial grounds of achieving further orders from the US market as well as other reasons".

These he did not specify.

New orders

By July 1984 also, the issue was considered by Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Geoffrey Howe who told the NIO that, as regards the west Belfast plant: "You should seek to pre-empt any attempt by the Irish National Caucus to claim credit for this."

Image caption The west Belfast plant would have been on the site of the former DeLorean factory

He explained that the need for expansion followed a large number of new orders, especially a large order from the US Air Force for Sherpa Transport planes.

Sir Geoffrey added: "The opening of a US plant should make easier the recruitment of Catholics who may be unwilling to travel to the company's site in east Belfast."

The end of the proposal is chronicled in a note from Peter Rees, chief secretary to the treasury, to Mrs Thatcher on 9 November, 1984.

Mr Rees described the proposal as "weak on normal investment appraisal criteria".

In his view, the case for cabinet approval turned on a judgement about "significant extra business with the USA which, for political reasons (such a plant) could help to stimulate".

The chief secretary was unimpressed with this argument, however, informing Mrs Thatcher: "I accept that the advice of our Washington embassy is categoric on this point... but there is an element of political blackmail here and I must say now that I could not agree to any further project whose sole justification turned on foreign pressure for investment on sectarian grounds."