Irish aircraft firm's bid for Air Force contract hits turbulence over hiring

A war of words between a Northern Ireland aerospace company and an Irish-American organization over the company's hiring record could cost this divided city a much-needed economic boost.

A possible $40 million contract with the United States Air Force (USAF) for 18 aircraft is being touted by Short Bros., the Belfast aerospace company, as a good thing for Protestant and Roman Catholic workers alike.

But the Irish National Caucus in Washington has been lobbying key congressmen to have Shorts eliminated from the bidding. Shorts, it says, discriminates against Catholics in its employment practices.

The caucus was formed in 1974 and its director is an Ulster-born priest, the Rev. Sean McManus. Two of its objectives are ''to support human rights for Ireland and a British withdrawal at some point.'' It has strong links with Irish republican groups in the US and Ireland.

Some facts seem to back up the caucus's allegations. Although Shorts does not keep details of its 6,000 employees' religion, unofficial estimates suggest that only 8 percent of the skilled work force is Catholic. That figure, however, does rise to 25 percent among senior management.

Shorts counters that it is doing the best it can ''in a difficult demographic situation,'' and that the caucus is using the issue to further divide Northern Ireland.

The caucus campaign does not stress that Shorts is based in east Belfast, where 95 percent of the population is Protestant. Nor does the caucus make it clear that Catholics are often unwilling to apply for jobs in a Protestant sector of the divided city.

Protestant and Catholic trade unionists are firmly behind Shorts' bid. In early July, leading Irish trade unionists met their American counterparts from the AFL-CIO visiting Ireland. The Irish pointed out that the contract would secure jobs at Shorts, increase employment, and give the company an opportunity to widen its recruitment policy.

Roy Gordon, a leading trade unionist at Shorts and a Protestant, says, ''This is not a question of religion. Our people are trade unionists. Workers here are saying, 'What are these people trying to do to us?' We are endeavoring to provide work for everyone.''

Frank Caddell, a Roman Catholic and leading trade unionist, adds, ''If we don't get this order it will not help anyone here.''

The company has scoured local Catholic and Protestant schools in recent years for suitable apprentice recruits. But this task is difficult, a situation underscored by the 1981 application figures: 1,200 young Protestants applied for jobs, but only 213 Catholics did so. Shorts has also undertaken an affirmative action program in association with the local fair employment agency. The company has agreed to supply the agency with details of applicants and their ''probable'' religion, which might be deduced from the areas where they live.

The USAF wants a rugged, reliable aircraft to transport jet engines and other spare parts among its European bases. Alex Roberts, the Shorts marketing director, claims that the company's new ''sherpa'' aircraft is well suited for this.

The sherpa is the cargo version of the Shorts 330, the highly successful commuter aircraft that has carried 15 million passengers for many airlines around the world since its introduction in 1976.

But having overcome the technical problems, Shorts now finds itself enmeshed in a web of politics.

Shorts' chairman, Sir Philip Foreman, says, ''The allegations of discrimination are extremely hurtful . . . I don't think this is about religion. The caucus regards this as an opportunity to produce even more instability in Northern Ireland.''

The contract could lead to orders for 46 more aircraft and provide up to 2, 000 new jobs.

The USAF contract will be awarded at year's end, possibly in November. Shorts' main competitor is the Spanish company Construcciones Aeronauticas.

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