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The Stormont Parliament building, where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits, is seen in Belfast, Northern Ireland March 3, 2017. (TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
The Stormont Parliament building, where the Northern Ireland Assembly sits, is seen in Belfast, Northern Ireland March 3, 2017. (TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

How Bombardier landed at the centre of Northern Ireland's election Add to ...

Carole Newton shrugs and frowns as she huddles against a chilly wind outside a polling station in an elementary school in East Belfast.

She’s handing out flyers for her husband, Robin Newton, who’s running for the Democratic Unionist Party. But she isn’t very enthusiastic. “A lot of people are very worried as to what’s going to happen,” she said as a handful of voters shuffle by. Mr. Newton has been in office for 14 years and he’s likely to win again in this pro-DUP area, but it won’t matter much since there probably won’t be a government to join anyway.

Northern Ireland has long been held up as an example to the world of how two warring factions can set aside their differences and generally learn to work together, at least in government. Not any more.

The British province is going through its worst crisis since the Good Friday Agreement ended the Troubles in the late 1990s and led to the creation of a power-sharing form of government. Divisions between nationalists and unionists have worsened, sectarian violence has begun to creep up and the coalition government abruptly collapsed last month amid a scandal over a botched green-energy program that could cost taxpayers nearly $1-billion. Hovering over all of this is Brexit, something most Northern Irelanders opposed and most experts say will hit harder here than anywhere else in Britain.

A snap election was held Thursday and because of the province’s complicated form of proportional representation, full results won’t be known until Saturday. But few expect much to change. Both the DUP and the major nationalist party, Sinn Fein, have insisted they can no longer work together, meaning the government will be dissolved and the province will be ruled directly from London.

Ms. Newton knows all too well how the political impasse and Brexit will impact East Belfast. One of the biggest employers in all of Belfast is just down the road: Bombardier Inc. The Canadian company’s sprawling factory makes wings for its C Series aircraft and provides a multitude of services to aerospace players around the world. More than 4,000 people work at the complex, which also provides critical apprenticeships to young people from across Northern Ireland.

But now Brexit and the political turmoil have raised alarm bells inside the factory, which has already gone through a round of layoffs that cut 1,000 workers last year. “You’ve got Bombardier over there and they’ve had cuts,” Ms. Newton said, nodding toward the plant. “I just don’t know how all this is going to go.”

Before last June’s referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union, the plant’s manager Michael Ryan sent a letter to employees urging them to vote Remain. Mr. Ryan said one-third of the operation’s exports head to the EU and any disruptions to that, and the plant’s intricate supply lines, could impact competitiveness. He wasn’t available to comment for this story, but in a recent speech he expressed concern about the political uncertainty. “We need to keep working on the issues, expecting and knowing there will be a resolution at a political level. We need it as soon as we possibly can,” he said.

For people like Davy Thompson, who has worked at the plant for 21 years and is now the union representative, the potential impact of all the turmoil on Bombardier’s operations is troubling. “For Northern Ireland, Bombardier is such a massive employer,” he said. “So it’s important not just for people in Northern Ireland but for the whole of NI and its economy.… The issue for us is that without any government in [Northern Ireland], we have nobody fighting in our corner when it comes to those Brexit negotiations.”

Georgina Milne grew up in a Bombardier household and is now a Belfast city councillor. Her father has worked at the plant for decades and she knows the concerns of many employees in the area from her work in politics. She ran for the Green Party in this week’s election and heard plenty of worries while campaigning in the riding. “It will be difficult in East Belfast,” she said. “People are clearly disillusioned.”

Not everyone is overly concerned. William Cudworth, a 26-year-old Bombardier worker who ran for the Ulster Unionist Party in nearby North Down, said he is hopeful Brexit won’t be as damaging to Bombardier as many fear. “I think after the election, both sides [in the government] will come together to make things work,” he said. “You have to be optimistic. There is no point going into things with a negative attitude.”

That hopefulness isn’t shared by many others in East Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Some local companies, like Canadian-owned McCloskey International Ltd., which makes industrial machinery, have seen their cost of production soar as much as 20 per cent since the Brexit vote, due to the drop in the value of the pound. Raising prices to make up that difference isn’t an option if the company wants to remain competitive, said a company spokesman.

“The political impasse literally couldn’t have come at a worse time,” said Paul Mac Flynn, an economist in Belfast with a think tank called NERI. Mr. Mac Flynn said the province’s economy has still not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. House prices are about 50 per cent below their peak in 2006, unemployment is above the national average, wages are stagnant and the number of people who have given up on working is rising. In the last couple of years, Michelin and Japan Tobacco International closed two plants, throwing nearly 2,000 people out of work. The economy “is scraping along the bottom,” said Mr. Mac Flynn. And Brexit won’t help.

The biggest concern for him and others is the border with the Republic of Ireland. The border has long been an emblem of the sectarian conflict, with British soldiers manning checkpoints during the Troubles and most trade restricted. Those checks were eliminated in the 1990s thanks to the Good Friday Agreement and joint EU membership. Today more than 35,000 people cross back and forth every day without even knowing it and many companies have operations on both sides. Roughly two-thirds of Northern Ireland’s exports head south and the two economies are so intertwined that nearly all of the milk consumed in Northern Ireland is processed in Ireland, while Ireland relies on most of its chicken from the North.

But once Britain is out of the European Union, its border with Ireland will be the U.K.’s only land connection to the EU. British Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted she doesn’t want a hard border and prefers some kind of free-movement zone. But most experts question how that will happen and they doubt it would cover trade in goods, leaving Northern Ireland’s economy vulnerable. Some companies have already begun taking precautions, such as drug maker Almac Group Inc., which has announced plans to build a new facility in Ireland, raising fears about jobs relocating.

“Right now we face probably one of the most dangerous and politically and economically challenging periods in a long while,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, an association for manufacturers. “What happens in the next two years will define the next 50 years.” He added that any move to reimpose the border will have a drastic impact on the Northern Ireland economy.

It’s not just an economic argument. Removing the border has been a political statement and an endorsement of the peace process. Returning it could reopen old wounds about unification. Already support for Northern Ireland to leave the U.K. and join Ireland has more than doubled in some polls to 44 per cent. “There are a lot of people who bought into the peace process on the basis that it was going to lead to a growing together of the two parts of Ireland within the EU,” said Nicholas Whyte, a former Northern Ireland politician who participated in the peace process and now works for the global consulting firm APCO. “And that’s now dead.”

Back in East Belfast, people like Glenn Stafford are just hoping for some kind of resolution to the politics and Brexit. He voted for one of the fringe parties, the Progressive Unionist Party, out of frustration with the main parties, but he isn’t convinced much will change. And like many of his neighbours, he isn’t sure what Brexit means, just yet. He works at James Neill Ltd., a local flour mill, and the company is holding a staff meeting next week to talk about plans for Brexit. “Everybody is worried about their job and security,” he said. “We just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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