Politicians essentially have two years to save the economy of a large Co Antrim town.
That was the stark message from one unionist councillor ahead of a rally in Ballymena today (Saturday), aimed at highlighting the uncertain future which the town faces thanks to the pending closure of two of its main employers.
Today’s gathering, called “Rally for a Future”, is organised by the Unite trade union, which said it begins at 12pm at the Ballymena bandstand.
It has already been backed by actors Liam Neeson and James Nesbittm both of whom hail from Ballymena.
Ballymena’s Michelin plant, estimated to employ about 800 staff, announced in November 2015 that it would shut in 2018. The move was described as “apocalyptic” by DUP MP for North Antrim Ian Paisley Junior.
Meanwhile, the JTI tobacco plant – employing an estimated 870 – is also to close by about 2017.
UUP councillor Stephen Nicholl will be among those attending the rally, and said: “There’s nothing we’re going to be able to do to stop the closures happening.
“But we have to focus on the next stage, which is how do we replace those jobs – with good quality jobs in the manufacturing industry, or in suitable alternatives?”
Asked what the ramifications would be if nothing is done, he said: “The doomsday scenario is that you have a highly-skilled workforce who enjoy a good standard of living, suddenly being reduced to a significant number of people who are unemployed.”
He said the amount of money taken out of the economy would be “measured in tens of millions”, and that the effects would be measured across an entire generation.
Asked if, in summary, this means there is only a two-year window in which to rescue the town’s economy, he said: “More or less, yeah.”