Time to start the recovery

The announcement of the closure of the JTI factory at Lisnafillan has come as a great shock to employees, the local community and wider Northern Ireland society. Despite the threats of EU Regulations which would severely impact on the particular production at the plant and the ongoing growth of cigarette smuggling no-one really believed that such a large multinational could be forced out, not only of Northern Ireland but bringing to an end cigarette production in the United Kingdom. Clearly the impact of these threats has been much greater than expected. For the employees there is the knowledge that the first redundancies will not take effect until May 2016. In that lies a significant challenge for Government at all levels, how do we provide the support for employees to take advantage of any new employment opportunity that may arise including retraining? How do we create the circumstances to attract new major employers to the region? How do we reduce the burdens on existing businesses to ensure the sustainability of those businesses? At the heart of this closure lies nearly 1000 people directly impacted by the loss of employment, £60 million in wages lost to the local economy which will have knock on effects on the sustainability of other businesses, 230 SME’s which had contracts worth £30 million which will be hard to replace and a realisation that recovery will take a long time. Realistically the challenge will be keeping the issue top of the agenda, Invest NI has particular targets in job creation, the NI Executive has competing demands for investment across Northern Ireland and once the shock has receded Ballymena will slip down the priority list. Unless of course there is an integrated vision of the opportunity that Ballymena and the wider Mid and East Antrim can portray, we must make sure this area is the destination of choice for major investors. With some of the best transport links in Northern Ireland to air, sea and road networks Ballymena has much to offer. The skills readily available in the local workforce are transferable and the early commitment to assist in retraining by Government must be followed up on. There is certainly more that can be done to promote investment, economic development zones designed to encourage start up business could be established, the new council when creating local development plans could ensure a rapid planning process for investors, greater investment in research and development for those locating in Ballymena as an incentive and marketing the opportunities available at home and abroad. The time to grieve for what is lost must, by necessity, be short, the emphasis must now be on mitigating those losses within the next few years.

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