"A monumental vote of confidence." That's how David Hume of Citibank describes the decision by General Motors to open a second plant in Belfast -- even before the first was in full production.
He shares the enthusiasm of those here who feel that if the world's largest manufacturing company is keen to expand, Northern Ireland must be doing something right.
Robert Bownes, managing director of the Fisher plant at Dundonald in East Belfast, agrees. He is content with the company's progress since the contract that brought GM here was signed in 1979. "We're very pleased with the work force," says Mr. Bownes, a former production manager of GM's Fisher plant in Syracuse, N.Y. "I see Northern Ireland as a good place to do business," he adds.
A tour of the shop floor suggests why. The Dundonald plant, which went into production in April, is a clean, airy facility built a few years ago for a company making aircraft components. When the steel presses, injection molders, and sewing machines reach full production, some 600 employees will make seat belts -- a simple-sounding but surprisingly complex component -- for GM's European market of Vauxhalls and Opels.
The landscaped suburban plant also includes a $:750,000 ($1.65 million) laboratory to ensure that the product meets the exacting safety standards of the various European countries -- "the best lab of its kind in Europe," Mr. Bownes says. The plant also houses a barrel zinc plater -- the only one of its kind in Northern Ireland -- coupled to its own industrial waste disposal facility.
Mr. Bownes and his staff rattle around in the vast office block fronting the factory. But, as he explains, that will give them plenty of administrative space when the new plant opens across town to produce door locks, window regulators, and body moldings.
Why did GM choose Northern Ireland?
Mr. Bownes cites four factors: the availability of a skilled work force; a good existing facility; a solid supporting infrastructure of roads, ports, and air links; and an attractive package of government incentives.
"Most people would leap to the conclusion that the incentives package is the deciding factor," he says, adding simply, "It's not." GM has its eye on a future after the incentives have run their course: a European components market that, according to figures published by the Northern Ireland Development Agency, will be worth some $21 billion by 1985, when car production in Europe will be significantly higher than in the United States.
Nevertheless, incentives are still significant. Mr. Bownes cannot divulge figures, but the total investment program of the company here represents an outlay of $:20 million ($44 million). Outside observers suggest that 50 or 60 percent of the costs so far may have been borne by the government.
Those incentives, it is felt, were crucial in GM's decision to expand out of largely Protestant Dundonald into West Belfast, A Roman Catholic area. Nevertheless, the decision is heralded here as a triumph for a desperately impoverished -- and somewhat dangerous -- area of the city. While recognizing the problem of security, Mr. Bownes is hopeful that his company's motives -- "the recognition of a real, genuine need for jobs in West Belfast" and the desire to "demonstrate real social responsibility in the community" -- will keep the company from being a target. When the 75,000-square-foot factory is completed in 1981, and when an addition at Dundonald is complete, GM will employ 1,200 people.
If GM's presence here proves as lasting as Ford's, which has been making carburetors and distributors in Belfast since 1964, it will join what officials hope will be a lengthening list of components manufacturers. Already here are Michelin tires, Tenneco Walker exhaust systems, Essex wiring harnesses, Arntz fan belts, and others. And, of course, Dunlop, which now makes tire fabric in Londonderry -- confirming a destiny for Northern Ireland in the motor industry which, some argue, dates from the invention in 1888 of the world's first pneumatic bicycle tire by a Belfast veterinarian, John Boyd Dunlop.