WHITHER THE FURNITURE INDUSTRY?

10 January 2014 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The decline and fall of the furniture manufacturing sector in Co Monaghan forms a sobering case study for those seeking to understand the human impact of the globalising trends that shape modern economies.

Over many decades, reaching a halcyon point in the 1980s, the sector was the pride of Co Monaghan enterprise, a vigorous source of employment and an export flagship – until irresistible international market forces reduced it to its modern state where large-scale production has ended and the remaining manufacturers have downsized considerably and are battling to secure opportunities to remain viable.

Against this background an action plan to clarify the currently uncertain future for the industry – such as was outlined to the members of Monaghan Co Council on Monday – is a welcome if long overdue development.

Certainly our initial editorial reaction to the presentation made by Padraig Maguire and Dermot McNally in relation to the rather opaquely titled URBACT Programme Wood Foot Print Project – one we suspect it will be readers’ first instinct to share – was that it formed a very commendable undertaking, but what a pity it wasn’t put in place at least a decade or more ago.

But more considered reflection on the initiative commends it highly to the present-day realities it very clear-headedly acknowledges and seeks to negotiate – and we hope that those who read our story on page one about the presentation and the reaction of the Co Council to it, particularly those who have any kind of a stake in the furniture manufacturing area, will share our regard for what those who are driving the project are trying to achieve.

It would be misleading to present the plan as a rescue package for the furniture industry – the sector, in the big-factory, labour-intensive form that was its most identifiable habiliment in this county, is almost certainly beyond the point of rescue: modern market realities make implausible a return of major factory floor employment in this area of enterprise.

But the various strategies being pursued by those driving the project indicate that there is a future out there for a leaner, more innovative furniture sector in the county for those who wish to remain within the industry – as well as alternative channels for the skills and infrastructure at the disposal of those who have departed it or are contemplating such a decision.

Greater light will be shed on these interesting pathways at a seminar for stakeholders being organised in Monaghan next month – and the month following, which will see the visit to the county of those with an interest in this sphere of manufacturing from other European states, should point up the potential to forge productive co-operative and networking links abroad, an approach which will surely be integral to the level of future prosperity our county’s furniture makers aspire to enjoy.

These dimensions of the project, and the realisation of the wider objectives it has set itself, will have their success or failure determined by the extent of “buy in” forthcoming from industry representatives in our county – and it was evident from Monday’s presentation that there is still some reluctance among the remaining “insiders” to participate in co-operative ventures of this nature.

The intensively competitive atmosphere prevalent in this area of manufacture in Co Monaghan when it was at its zenith created an environment where production efficiencies and innovation were traditionally jealously guarded.

One discerns that unhelpful remnants of this “cut-throat culture” linger on in the surviving industry long after the conditions for its perceived necessity have vanished.

If this is the case, it is surely long beyond time that this insular attitude was dispensed with – the fate of the business in this area in itself suggests the folly of ignoring potentially beneficial opportunities for the interchange of ideas and the identification of new market avenues: its history lesson instructively equates reluctance to change with extinction.

That is not to say there is not value in tradition – as well as our big furniture factories, much small-scale local employment has been generated in our county by craftsmanship in wood, a feature of activity in many locations that is imbued with deep heritage value as well as economic utility.

This perpetuation of the artisan tradition should not be swept away by the tide of change – any future plans for the industry can certainly learn lessons from its adaptability and resilience, and make space for its celebration and promotion as a source of potential cultural tourism interest as well as an important ongoing economic resource for the communities where it still finds its home.

A feature of the new Border Regional Authority-powered project that is particularly commendable is the compilation of an inventory of vacant factory space in Co Monaghan – such an exercise, if extended beyond the bounds of the furniture sphere to embrace other areas of production where vacated premises have been the unfortunate outcome of economic decline, offers important knowledge that could be put to particularly good use by Monaghan Co Council as it begins to explore the enhanced economic development role that pending local government reforms promise to assign to it.

As Mr Maguire stated on Monday, it has been customary to regard the vast amount of unused manufacturing space in the county as a blot on the landscape instead of an incubating asset.

Changing this thinking will be key to preparing Co Monaghan to meet any future tide of economic revival at the flood, and follow its course on to fortune.

And a change of thinking is equally essential for those hoping to remain viable in our furniture manufacturing sector, who have a great deal to gain and very little to lose from actively participating in the current URBACT project.

The answer to our “Whither the furniture industry?” question remains unclear – but a more hopeful future is possible if the initiative outlined to Monaghan Co Council on Monday receives the support and co-operation from within its target sector that is so patently merited.

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