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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 9 May 1996

Vol. 147 No. 5

Adjournment Matters. - Closure of Portarlington Firm.

This is an issue of great concern to people in Portarlington and in the larger area of Laois-Offaly. The closure of Butler's Engineering came as a devastating blow to Portarlington which has suffered more than most towns from job losses in recent years. The ESB station was closed down and the local workforce of Bord na Móna was substantially reduced as part of that company's rationalisation programme. Now Butler's Engineering has gone too.

The impact of the loss of 130 jobs in a town of approximately 3,500 people cannot be exaggerated. Proportionately, it is a much bigger blow than the closure of Packard Electric in Tallaght. The loss of jobs at Butler's Engineering must be seen in the context of the unemployment problem in County Laois where approximately 3,400 people are on the dole. Some 1,300 of these are in the Portarlington area.

The county simply cannot afford the loss of another major industry. It is almost three months since Butler's Engineering went into receivership and it is three weeks since the last of the workers were let go. The plant is now closed completely, but since the receivership was originally announced there has been little evidence of any attempt by the Government to come to grips with the problem. There has been no initiative, no task force and no special measures to cope with the difficulties that will arise for the town of Portarlington and the surrounding area as a result of this closure.

Butler's Engineering was in business for almost 30 years and over that period the company built up a well deserved reputation for excellence in the field of steel fabrication. It won orders for many prestigious projects not just at home but also in the highly competitive British market and further afield. The company built up a highly trained and skilled workforce. It brought on stream a modern state-of-the-art fabrication plant which enabled it to compete with the best. Now the workers from Butler's are idle and the plant is also.

Surely we can see that both the plant and the workforce are valuable assets, and with some effort both could be got back to work again. Every effort must be made to find a buyer for the plant so that production can recommence and as many of the workforce as possible can be re-engaged. Portarlington should not be difficult to sell as an industrial location to potential investors. The town has good road and rail links to the rest of the country and is within easy reach of the port of Dublin. It is not too far from the ports of Waterford and Rosslare.

I realise the Government cannot create jobs, but it should do everything it can to ensure that the jobs which existed at Butler's until a couple of months ago are saved. Have the Minister, his officials in the Department of Enterprise and Employment, or any of the State development agencies met with the receiver to discuss the future of the Portarlington plant? Has IDA Ireland identified any foreign investors who might be interested in taking over the business, and are any discussions in progress on this front? Has the Minister or the State agencies any proposals to find an alternative industry for Portarlington to replace the jobs lost at Butler's?

Time is running out and the months are slipping by, yet the Government does not seem to be acting. There is no Government Minister, senior or junior, in the constituency of Laois-Offaly, but the interests of Portarlington and other towns in the constituency must not be neglected on this account.

The Minister for Enterprise and Employment should indicate what action he proposes to take in relation to Butler's Engineering and how he intends to deploy the resources of the State to alleviate the present problem. The former workforce at Butler's and the people of Portarlington and surrounding areas deserve no less.

I am answering on behalf of the Minister for Enterprise and Employment who is unable to attend. I am happy to respond to Senator Honan who, understandably, has raised this issue as a constituency representative for Laois-Offaly. The matter was raised on 20 February in the Dáil by my colleague, Deputy Pat Gallagher.

While I have every respect for the intellectual integrity of Senator Honan in her individual capacity representing, as she very ably does, the people of Laois-Offaly, everything she has said is in total contradiction to the policy of the party of which she is currently a member. If Senator Honan's party had its way and was in Government, not only would there be no help for Butler's Engineering but it would have closed earlier because of the level of debt that it owed to, among others, one of the State agencies. If Senator Honan's party had its way, that agency would not exist.

Without wishing to be harsh on the Senator, who is clearly fighting a constituency battle, what she said was in total contradiction to the rhetoric of abuse that comes from her leader and from the party's financial spokesperson in the Dáil. I will not allow that to colour the quality of my reply, although I wish to let it stand on the record.

The Senator asked a specific question and I recognise that the employment needs of Portarlington are acutely difficult. I am informed that Mr. Ray Jackson of KPMG, who was appointed as receiver for this company on 16 February, recently informed the Department of Enterprise and Employment, through Forbairt — an agency which the Progressive Democrats would like to abolish — that he is fairly confident there will be a new taker for the company. He is currently having discussions with a number of parties and, clearly, those discussions are taking much longer than had been anticipated. I can assure the Senator that the State agency, Forbairt, is in regular contact with the receiver who knows the agency is available to assist in whatever way possible.

To decode that, an increase in public expenditure — to which I know the Senator's party is totally opposed, although on this occasion she would probably make an exception — might possibly be made available from the "spendthrift" Labour Minister if a suitable buyer comes forward and if they meet Forbairt's criteria.

I hope that will be the case. If such a proposal comes to the Minister for Enterprise and Employment with a recommendation from Forbairt then it will receive the support of the Department of Finance.