Ballymena bus makers Wrightbus are tonight not challenging reports that all potential buyers have withdrawn from the race to buy the troubled company.
In recent days it was reported that the Ballymena company – which has a turnover of over £180m and produced the famed ‘Boris Bus’ for London – was close to administration.
Asked to comment on reports that all would-be buyers had now pulled out of the bidding process, Wrightbus did not challenge the claim.
“The Board of Wrights Group is working hard to ensure the long-term future of the company and its workforce,” it said in a statement.
It is understood, however, that the bidders are still in talks.
The area’s MP, Ian Paisley, said last night: “It has been expressed to me that there is great frustration that they haven’t been able to seal a deal.
“It appears to be one of those moments when everything is very close, but yet so far.”
Local MLA and UUP leader Robin Swann agreed there was still hope. “These are unsettling and unnerving times for the employees and wider North Antrim area, there is still life in the current process and it is in no way complete,” he said. “I am hopeful that the start of next week will see positive progress for what is a mainstay of employment and manufacturing in Ballymena.”
It is reported that Jo Bamford - whose father Lord Bamford is chairman of JCB - was involved in talks with the company, as well as a major Chinese company Weichai.
NI businessman Darren Donnelly also pulled out of the bidding process this week.
Mr Paisley said he was hopeful of support from Boris Johnson, who ordered buses from the company as mayor of London, if a sale goes through.
“I spoke to the prime minister personally tonight [Friday] again and his office came back to me with assurances of what they can do when this sales process is complete. And they confirmed that significant government money was paid to the Wrightbus this week to keep it going, from Northern Ireland channels.
“So they are making every effort to keep this process alive.
“I personally am of the view that whoever would buy this company would see government release more money into the bus sector so that more orders could emerge. But we have to jump the first hurdle and secure the company.
“I think precarious would be a very good description of the situation. It needs to be resolved with a degree of urgency. The goodwill of everyone is needed to make sure this happens at every level, whether at government level, boardroom and in those making bids. There is considerable goodwill but it just hasn’t reached that point yet.”
George Brash, regional officer with Unite The Union, said he has arranged an urgent meeting with Wrightbus on Monday morning to seek assurances about jobs and to meet his members.
“Wrightbus are basically saying they are still in negotiations to try and resolve the situation,” he said. “We are still seeking clarification on that position and where the 1,400 workers stand after Monday”. In conversation with him, the company had not denied reports that all buyers had withdrawn from the buying process, he confirmed. “After we speak to them face to face on Monday and speak to our members we will have a better understanding of the situation.”
Another source feared the company could go into receivership next week but also said that two bidders are still in talks.
The developments will have been unsettling for many in Ballymena, which has lost major manufacturers Michelin and Gallaghers in recent years.
Latest accounts show Wrightbus made a pre-tax profit of £5m on a turnover of more than £181m in 2017.
However its financial situation has worsened since then, letting 95 workers go twice last year - which it said reflected low levels of demand for new buses in the UK.