Aerospace company in Belfast to expand in Catholic section

Shorts, the Belfast manufacturer of aircraft, equipment, and missile systems, is to open a factory on the site of the former De Lorean automobile plant, initially employing 200 new workers.

This expansion to mainly Roman Catholic west Belfast is evidence of the company's growing international success and its sensitivity to allegations that it does not employ enough Catholics in predominantly Protestant Northern Ireland. Negotiations between the company and the government-sponsored industrial development board are not yet finished, but Shorts is hoping to use the training section of the former De Lorean plant at Dunmurry to supplement its main work center in mainly Protestant east Belfast.

Political reaction has been predictable: Brian Feeney of the mainly Catholic Social Democratic and Labour Party welcomed the move; Peter Robinson, deputy leader of the Rev. Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionists, accused Shorts of ''pandering to Republicans.''

Such comments underline the difficulties facing a company in trying to walk the political tightrope in a divided community. Shorts has achieved spectacular success commercially; there is evidence it is also making headway in its recruitment policy within the Catholic community. The company has maintained that its main difficulty is attracting Catholic workers into east Belfast. This difficulty is increased because engineering has been a traditionally Protestant occupation.

The expansion of its activities into west Belfast will overcome the problem of Catholics having to cross into a mainly Protestant district. It will also provide the company with an opportunity to develop engineering skills among the Catholic population.

Earlier this year Shorts won a massive order from the United States Air Force for 18 Sherpa transport aircraft, with an option on 48 more planes, plus support services. Sir Philip Foreman, chairman and managing director of the company, said the ''at an initial value of $115 million, plus options that could bring the overall total to $461 million, it is the largest order ever received by Shorts.'' The order was won against strong international competition - and despite a concerted campaign by the US-based Irish National Caucus, which claimed that the USAF should not deal with Shorts because it employed too few Catholics.

The company is still sensitive to such allegations, and it continues to work hard to tackle a recruitment imbalance which, it strongly protests, was not of its own making. Significantly, its continued commercial success has enabled it to broaden its base to help tackle this sensitive problem more directly. Its order books, not only in aircraft but also in missile systems and aerospace equipment, is extremely healthy. The US continues to be its biggest aircraft market, and the 1983 figures show that its 330 and 361-type planes now provide 9 .5 percent of the US regional airlines' total fleet.

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