Over the border in Northern Ireland*, the aerospace sector is dominated by Bombardier's Shorts division. The aerostructures business has been a fixture on Belfast's industrial landscape since 1936, and was purchased from the UK government by the Canadian company in 1989 during a six-year shopping spree which saw it add Canadair, de Havilland and Learjet.

Bombardier Belfast employs 5,600 people, four-fifths of the province's entire aerospace workforce. Although it does not carry out any final assembly, it is involved in 11 out of 14 Bombardier aircraft programmes, making the entire fuselage of the Learjet 40/45 and structures for the Global, Challenger, CRJ and Dash 8 Q Series ranges, and has "leadership" in composites and nacelle technologies within Bombardier. The factory has been singled out as a possible site to build the 100-seat Bombardier regional jet under study. The company is one of Boeing's biggest aerostructures suppliers in Europe - it makes the all-composite rudder assemblies for the 737 and nose landing-gear doors for the 777. In the engine sector, customers include General Electric, International Aero Engines and Rolls-Royce. Overall sales last year were £430 million ($795 million), 30% of which was to non-Bombardier customers.

The global aerospace downturn has hit Northern Ireland's economy hard. Bombardier in Belfast grew rapidly in the late 1990s, adding 2,000 workers in the 18 months to the end of 2000. In the past two years it has shed 1,800 staff. "Being on an island means when we let go of people, there is nowhere for them to go, but it is easier for them to return when the recovery comes," says Colin Elliott, vice-president engineering at the factory.

Bombardier Belfast is heavily involved in research and development. Current demonstrator projects include improving the acoustics of nacelles and developing resin transfer infusion for wing components on regional jets. The company works with the city's Queens University, where it sponsors a chair in aerospace engineering, and helps fund courses at other universities in the province and the rest of the UK.

The rest of Northern Ireland's aerospace industry comprises mainly technology and precision engineering companies. Multinationals with Northern Ireland subsidiaries include Goodrich, Raytheon Systems and Thales. There are about 15 other companies employing from 10 to a few hundred staff. Typical among them are Denroy Plastics of Bangor, which supplies plastic components for the Eurofighter Typhoon, and Langford Lodge in Crumlin, which tests Martin Baker ejector seat mechanisms and supplies Airbus flight control systems to Goodrich.

Six years ago, nine of Northern Ireland's aerospace companies formed the Northern Ireland Aerospace Consortium, which has 20 members, representing over 97% of the province's aerospace industry in sales and employee terms, and is recognised as the official industry body for Northern Ireland, says chairman Paul Madden. Members co-operate on training and marketing initiatives, and occasionally on joint bids for work. While many of the member companies compete in the same sector, working together as "virtual enterprises" often makes sense, says Madden. "With supply chains contracting and the big players wanting fewer points of contact, small companies know that on their own they haven't a chance of getting a foot in the door with many of the primes."

* When Ireland gained independence from London in 1921, the country was partitioned and the six counties which now form Northern Ireland stayed within the UK. The so-called "Troubles" broke out in 1969 after a series of civil rights demonstrations on behalf of the minority Catholic population prompted a violent response and led to the UK sending its army in to restore order. Over the next 25 years, the Irish Republican Army carried out a terrorist campaign against the military, police and what it termed as agents of the occupation - both in Northern Ireland and mainland UK. In response, "loyalist" terror groups committed hundreds of murders, mainly of Catholics. The 1998 Good Friday agreement set a peace process in motion, with a "power sharing" devolved assembly and provincial government set up near Belfast. Although the assembly is suspended and sporadic violence still takes place, the peace dividend has boosted the economy through tourism and inward investment.

Source: Flight International