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Originally published September 30, 2010 at 5:06 PM | Page modified October 2, 2010 at 10:42 PM

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Shop floor reflects changes in Belfast

By Dominic Gates Seattle Times aerospace reporter

In 1989, Bombardier bought Short Brothers, the Belfast airplane manufacturer with a history older than Boeing. Since then the Canadian company has invested $1.4 billion in modern manufacturing equipment, completely updating the operation.

That's not the only modernization under way. As recently as the 1980s, Shorts, as it was known, was like most of Belfast's industrial base a stronghold of Protestant discrimination against Roman Catholics.

The politics of Belfast — a Victorian industrial city, built on textile mills and shipbuilding, with airplanes a later addition — was mired in tribal animosity stretching back to the 17th century.

The city's industrial jobs were largely reserved for what Americans refer to as Scotch-Irish, the descendants of Protestants who originally came mostly from Scotland. The longer-established Gaelic Irish community, which was Catholic, was actively excluded.

The Titanic, for example, was built in Belfast's Harland & Wolff shipyard in 1911 — a massive project on a scale comparable to a new airplane program at Boeing. But the men who built it were almost exclusively Protestant.

Every July, commemorating a Protestant victory in a battle three hundred years ago, the inside of the Shorts factory was emblazoned with sectarian flags and emblems offensive or intimidating to Catholics.

Very few Catholics worked at Shorts through the late 1960s, when a civil-rights movement modeled on the black civil-rights movement in the U.S. began to agitate for change and compelled the British government to pass anti-discrimination laws.

Before that legislation could make a difference, the peaceful civil-rights movement gave way to a long terrorist war of attrition between the Irish Republican Army, the British, and various illegal Protestant paramilitary groups. Northern Ireland's two communities became even more polarized.

About 40 percent of the Northern Irish population is Catholic, but in the early 1980s, less than 5 percent of the Shorts work force was Catholic, said Bombardier Belfast spokesman Alec McRitchie.

Yet when Bombardier (based, ironically, in largely Roman Catholic Quebec) bought Shorts, its timing was fortuitous. "The Troubles," as Ulster's civil war was known, edged toward a solution by the mid-1990s and Northern Ireland's political leaders finally agreed on a framework of government that rooted out discrimination.

Today, any personal display inside the factory that might be seen as sectarian — even wearing the soccer shirt of a team associated with one side of the community — is banned.

Although Bombardier has not hired heavily in the past couple of decades, thanks to affirmative action and outreach, the proportion of Catholics in the work force has climbed to approximately 17 percent, McRitchie said.

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"The religious affiliation of the annual intakes of apprentices and graduates has for some time reflected the religious breakdown of the Belfast travel-to-work area," McRitchie said.

Another person close to the Bombardier Belfast shop floor said that although sectarian attitudes linger among a few older workers, open expression of religious bigotry is no longer acceptable, and among younger workers, "it's a thing of the past."

Bombardier is a rare bright spot in the Northern Irish economy, which otherwise remains largely stagnant despite the political stability.

With the CSeries wing plant projecting 800 new jobs, young Catholics in Northern Ireland can now aspire, as they never could before, to a career in aviation.

— Dominic Gates grew up in Northern Ireland. Reach him at (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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