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Focus by East Belfast DUP MLA Robin Newton on the textile industry in Northern Ireland.

The linen industry is famously woven into our country’s history. Alongside shipbuilding, the textile mills would help transform Belfast into a global trading hub earning the city the title of ‘Linenopolis’. At its height the industry employed 40% of Northern Ireland’s working population. However, whilst the great red brick warehouses still stand in the Linen Quarter, they no longer house the textile factories which famed Belfast as a city of skill, heritage, and innovation. The industry across the UK declined and jobs were relocated overseas. Northern Ireland once the powerhouse of textiles suffered greatly.

Despite this global shift in textile production Northern Ireland remains renowned for its talent and skills. Samuel Lamont & Sons ltd for example hold the Royal Warrant as suppliers of textiles to Queen Elizabeth II. The exceptional work of Ulster Carpets can be found in luxury hotels across the world from Dubai to Las Vegas. The industry has once again shown its versatility and resilience with companies such as O’Neills shifting production from sportswear to essential PPE in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. These companies are a testament to the talent that continues to be fostered in Northern Ireland.

Whilst the decline of the textile industry has been well documented, a new story of the industry’s revival across the UK is currently being written. The Textiles Growth Programme contributed to this development. Launched in 2013 it was the largest initiative to be undertaken in the UK to support the sector. It created and safeguarded over 4,000 jobs, producing a £200 million growth in production in just two years. Manchester once dubbed ‘Cottonopolis’ is one city to benefit from the scheme. Capitalising on its textile history it has become a hub for the E-commerce fashion industry. Scotland too has witnessed an incredible rejuvenation in its textile sector. By tapping into their heritage, they boast Chanel, Gucci and YSL as clients. This has revived the industry which is now the seventh most important contributor to the Scottish economy.

The story of the textile sector is clearly no longer one of decline but of rebirth and growth. Textile manufacturing contributes £9 billion annually to the UK economy with the sector embodying a phoenix industry which continues to thrive. Considering Northern Ireland’s rich legacy and skill it is my hope that we can capitalise on this renaissance, replicating and even surpassing the success already seen in other parts of the UK. There is an incredible opportunity for Northern Ireland to build upon our strengths, increase domestic growth and create employment opportunities.

Our strengths not only lie in traditional textiles but also in technical textiles which are utilised in the automotive, medical, and aerospace industries. The technical textile sector contributes £2 billion to the UK economy and it is only set to increase. Considering our success within the aerospace industry and the talent that already exists within the Northern Ireland Advanced Composite and Engineering Centre, we are certainly equipped to foster growth in this sector. Steve Kay, Managing Director of North West Texnet, a hub for UK advanced flexible materials based in Manchester has stated that, ‘Technical Textiles have been growing in importance to the economy in recent years. This importance is likely to increase as awareness about the functionality and potential of technical textiles brings more buyers to the market’. NW Texnet has helped drive the technical textile sector forward through facilitating collaborative initiatives and Research and Development projects. The potential for Northern Ireland companies to work with NW Texnet represents an opportunity to share and gain essential knowledge which would only benefit our textile industry.

The technical textile sector is not only an opportunity for Northern Ireland, but a necessity. Covid-19 has exposed the weaknesses inherent within overseas supply chains. The difficulty in acquiring PPE was clearly apparent and we must ensure that this is addressed. Kieran Kennedy, Managing Director of O’Neills has said, ‘If we are to learn anything from this pandemic, it is the necessity for preparedness by investing in our local textile industries. There is a significant opportunity to reinvest in the textile industry and create much needed sustainable long-term employment’.

Indeed, whilst the pandemic has been incredibly difficult, it also provides an opportune moment to have in-depth discussions surrounding the opportunities that re-shoring presents. Companies such as Doc Martens had already increased production in the UK before the pandemic, investing £2 million into its Northampton factory. According to a survey by Make it British, 50% of UK manufacturers have reported an increase in new business enquiries due to supply difficulties created by Covid-19. With Covid-19 highlighting the need for reliable supply chains, now is an opportune time to pursue re-shoring manufacturing facilities.

Opportunities for the textile industry are also developing following the UK’s exit from the European Union. The UK-Japan Free Trade agreement is just one example of how the industry will benefit from tariff reductions. Indeed, Northern Ireland must take advantage of our unique position in the UK going forward. Rose Mary Stalker, Chair of Invest Northern Ireland stated that, ‘People are starting to realise that if you are setting up a manufacturing business, Northern Ireland may well be the place to do it’. Whilst we may be a small country, we hold a direct opportunity to capitalise on our skills to create significant export opportunities which will benefit our economy going forward.

The story of the textile industry has clearly not ended. Indeed, the next chapter is still unfolding. The future of the industry will see greater growth and interest in the utilisation of smart textiles. One of the fastest growing markets in the world, smart textiles are a new generation of materials which can sense and react to their environment. Research and Development is pushing this sector forward rapidly. One example here in Northern Ireland is the collaboration between Ulster University and Bioflex Yarns ltd to develop a moisture and temperature regulating fabric for people with diabetes.

Textiles were the foundation of the Industrial Revolution in Northern Ireland. Whilst it was once labelled as a ‘dying industry’ it is clear this is no longer the case. Indeed, having previously worked in the sector for many years, I continue to be awed by the industry’s resilience and versatility. Textiles played a vital part in Northern Ireland’s history and I believe they will again play a key part in our future.