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No take-off for factory plan

The Ireland of the early 1960s was a forward-looking place. After the grey and insular post-war years of the 1940s and 50s there was a momentum to look outwards and take on exciting new  possibilities and projects. An entrepreneurial culture emerged in Irish government and business circles which placed a particular emphasis on encouraging investment by foreign industrialists.

A legacy of this drive to embrace new projects is the landmark building near Baldonnel cross, familiar to  Kildare commuters who travel the N7, and now occupied by Lufthansa Airmotive. Although more than four decades old, the office building still retains an aura of 1960s modernity. Behind the offices is a very large factory building which towards the perimeter of Baldonnel aerodrome.

In the early 1960s a leading figure in the French aviation industry, Monsieur Potez, approach the Irish government with a plan to establish an aircraft manufacturing plant in Ireland. The Potez brand was virtually a household name among the French – the firm had made aircraft for military and civilian operators in France since the First World War.  The aeroplane intended manufacture for the Irish plant was a new four-engined propeller plane with capacity for ten passengers in a high-spec executive fit out or up to eighteen in a standard passenger layout.

The Irish government was clearly impressed with M. Potez’s approach – all the more so when his projections indicated that the plant would employ a phenomenal 1,700 workers.  The Government dug deep into the Exchequer and delivered a grant of £405,000 to Potez as well as taking a shareholding of £914,900 in the holding company set up to establish the Irish venture. This was very serious money by the standards of 1960s prices. No doubt the Government facilitated the purchase of the land for the factory at Baldonnel with a view to completed aircraft coming off the assembly line and on to the runways at the existing military aerodrome for testing and delivery.

In the meantime Mr. Potez was busy getting his dream aircraft – designated the Potez 840 – into the air. The first model was built in France in 1961 and initial reaction among airlines was promising. A second prototype was built in France and undertook a sales tour of North America.

News of such a major new employer attracted much interest in the North Kildare/West Dublin areas and led to a humorous exchange in the Dail in April 1962 when Dr. Noel Browne, T.D., expressed concern that the new aircraft factory might sell aircraft to NATO countries despite Ireland’s policy of strict neutrality. The Minister for Industry and Commerce Jack Lynch TD diffused the criticism by saying that for every plane that the Potez factory made for NATO he would ask them to make another for the Warsaw Pact!

However there was less levity three years later in June 1965 when the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Dr. Patrick Hillery T.D. was challenged on the fact that while the State had given over a million pounds to the Potez project, and the huge factory had been constructed, there was only a handful of staff on site, nothing like the 1,700 that had been predicted.  A year later the signs were ominous that the grand project was falling way short of target. Mr. Clinton, T.D., challenged the Minister, Mr. George Colley T.D, with the fact that there were only 54 employed on site. Mr. Colley could give no assurances but insisted that the Potez family had put up their investment in the Baldonnel project before any State money had been handed over. However behind the scenes the project was unravelling; the Potez family travelled to Dublin for a meeting with the Irish government but the outcome was unsatisfactory as the demonstration aircraft built in France had failed to attract enough order. In August 1968 a liquidator was appointed to Potez Ireland Ltd. and the Baldonnel factory closed, never having employed more than 133 workers, a long way short of the 1,700 predicted by M. Potez when he first put the proposal to the Irish government. Eventually the premises were sold to Roadstone as a corporate headquarters. The State recovered just £344,000 of the £1,489,000 it had invested in the Potez project. An acknowledged low-point in the Government’s effort to encourage multinational industry some saw a humorous side with Deputy Gerry L’Estrange making the remark that the modern office premises would ‘make a lovely rest home for defeated Ministers!’

In a twist of fate, forty years later the former Potez plant now hums to the sound of the aviation industry it was originally intended for. In the hands of Lufthansa Airmotive it accommodates highly skilled services for the overhaul of the big jet engines which power modern jet airliners.

Liam Kenny in his column 'Nothing New Under the Sun' from the Leinster Leader of 15th July 2010 reflects on the investment by foreign industrialists on 1960s Ireland. Our thanks to Liam.  

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