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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 12:06 GMT 13:06 UK
Sink or swim for rural businesses
By Martin Cassidy
BBC Northern Ireland's rural affairs correspondent

Fardum Turlough, County Fermanagh
Fermanagh's rural economy has struggled in recent years
The speed of change in Northern Ireland's rural economy is presenting communities with starkly different scenarios.

While many towns struggle to come to terms with factory closures, others are embracing the robotic age amidst labour shortages.

The lakeland county of Fermanagh depends heavily on tourist spending, which helps boost a fragile rural economy.

But the visitor season lasts just a few months each year, and locals must rely on more than tourism and farming for a living.

Jobs are vital to the economic life of towns through Fermanagh and neighbouring Tyrone.

This is what it is all about - getting money on the ground to people who need it
Natasha McGrath, Fermanagh Local Action Group
But Northern Ireland communities have faced some dark days and a string of factory closures.

Irvinestown, Enniskillen and Lisnaskea have all experienced the cold draught of global economic pressures and are trying to recover from the departure of major employers.

When Irvinestown saw its two major employers - both textile factories - depart, many questioned whether the town had a future.

The Daintyfit bra factory closed with the loss of 80 jobs, while another 180 went when the Desmonds textile factory ceased production.

Economic void

But three years on, the green shoots of recovery are beginning to emerge.

Natasha McGrath
Natasha McGrath aims to give small businesses a boost
The former bra factory is headquarters to a local action group which aims to reverse job losses and economic decline.

The Fermanagh Local Action Group aims to help revive the local economy by encouraging small rural businesses.

Natasha McGrath said they aimed to create up to 100 jobs by seeing if small businesses could fill the economic void.

"We are hoping to run three new programmes that should commit another 600,000 and this is what it is all about - getting money on the ground to people who need it," she said.

'Secret recipe'

Viola Burns has the recipe for just such a business. As a girl, she baked buns for her father's bread van.

Viola Burns in her bakery
Viola Burns says her cake business is growing fast
She now employs eight bakers in a building behind her bungalow near Enniskillen, producing up to 2,000 boiled fruit cakes every week.

Viola uses an old Fermanagh recipe and insists on the fruit being soaked in sherry the night before baking.

"The next day the bakers blend our secret recipe of spices and then bake the cakes slowly," says Viola.

'Endless market'

In town after town, Ulster's proud textiles tradition is unwinding. One by one the factories have succumbed to low-priced Far Eastern imports.

Norman Lyons worked for over 20 years in the Desmonds factory in Omagh. Workers there thought it would be among the last to go.

I got some funny looks when I said I was going into embroidery
Norman Lyons
But when the doors eventually closed, Norman faced competing with hundreds of others for any available job.

Investing his redundancy money in a computerised embroidery machine, Norman has picked up the threads of his career.

Working from his converted garage, his micro-business provides a living for himself and his wife.

"I got some funny looks, when I said I was going into embroidery but the market is endless, be it schools or clubs or shops," said Norman.

Robot workers

But while small business may be beautiful for some, in places like Cookstown they are thinking big.

The demise of the Irish pig industry is a sorry tale. From a thriving industry with over 1,800 farms, fewer than 500 pig units remain.

But Cookstown, where they have been slicing bacon and making sausages since 1938, is now seeing evidence of a renaissance.

Grampian Country Pork has modernised the Cookstown factory and the workforce has expanded to almost 600, making it Britain's biggest pig processing plant.

And robots may soon be employed to help boost output.

Managing Director Bob Copsey said: "We need to remove some of the extremely heavy jobs and dirtiest tasks, and the technology and innovations are there on the continent."

Meanwhile, in nearby Dungannon some of the UK's most modern food processing factories are expanding as fast as they can find new workers.

Hope for future

But the contrast in fortunes with some smaller towns further west is stark.

Family ties, schools and low pay mean it is unrealistic for many to move, or even commute.

It is hoped the growth of small indigenous businesses will bring opportunities for some at least.

It has been a painful time in Northern Ireland's economic history, but the combination of micro-business and new, super-sized food companies offer hope for a more stable future.


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