6 June 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

The outcome of the development phase of the Wood FootPrint Project initiated in Monaghan over two years ago to examine the causes of decline in the furniture production sector and chart avenues for its revival was presented at a launch function on Friday last.
The report, “Whither the Furniture Industry?” takes a question posed some time ago in this editorial section of our newspaper and answers it with a comprehensive Local Action Plan based on a series of key implementation measures addressing organisation, training, design, manufacture and marketing.
One of the most important points made by the document, one emphasised several times by speakers at Friday’s event, is the abiding importance of furniture manufacture to the Co Monaghan economy.
While adverse market forces have toppled the industry from its position as one of the core providers of employment in Monaghan, hitting the major factories particularly hard, statistics compiled in the course of the report’s research element reveal that there remains more than 70 production units of varied size employing 444 people on either a full-time or part-time basis and generating an estimated €50 million per year – far more than CSO surveys of the industry have disclosed.
This is a not insignificant contribution for a sector perceived as being enfeebled by a tide of cheap imports and leaner production costs in competitor nations – and a sturdy base on which to build a renaissance.
The marked disparity between CSO findings and the finer-toothed comb of the project’s research is less an indictment of our national statisticians’ data-gathering acumen than an exposure of one of the factors that have until now inhibited an effective response by this sector to the problems that have recently beset it.
While some of the bigger factories are still eking out a market presence on a much-reduced scale of production, most of those involved in the business are the smallest of small enterprises whose level of activity, while significant to their immediate locality, is such that it can easily fly under the broad sweep of the CSO’s radar.
This has perhaps accentuated rather than abated the independent, go-it-alone streak that has always denoted practitioners in the Monaghan furniture trade – and generated a level of internal competition which, while it vaunted standards and sharpened production practices when the sector was in its pomp and there was plenty of business to share around, left the industry ill-equipped to come together and find common solutions when the market began to shrink.
A key element of the Wood FootPrint Project’s recovery platform is the recent formation in Monaghan of the Association of Furniture Manufacturers Ireland, a business alliance with the ambition of being an influential voice for the sector on relevant national and EU policy, and a body that can co-ordinate training, marketing and exhibition initiatives and reduce production costs for members by collective bargaining strategies.
The effectiveness of any representative organisation is determined by the “buy-in” it receives from those active in the relevant field. If the new FMI is to be “the key co-ordinator of the output of the plan” that Killian Coyle aspirationally described on Friday, it must attract active commitment from all those engaged in the manufacturing element of the business in particular, most especially those in the Monaghan area of its genesis. This will require a change of mindset among many in the trade, a quelling of the independent instinct that served them well in different times but is now more a hindrance than help in an era of industry retraction.
The injunction once given to the architects of the American independence movement – that, if they didn’t all hang together, they would all hang separately – would seem apposite to the current circumstances of the furniture industry.
It is also germane to another important facet of the recovery strategy – the evolution of the ‘Monmake’ concept, which advocates practitioners coming together to form a common brand through which they could collectively grow sales, share showroom and exhibition space and act as a visitor attraction.
This idea opens out an embrace to the craft facet of industry activity in the county – and while some of the more traditional producers might initially quell at that association, it, and the broader concept of being a force for local tourism development, should not be seen as any impoverishment of the status of our furniture tradition. Rather it is an opportunity for a renewing reacquaintance with the artisan woodcraft heritage that has deep roots in our county’s history and out of which the industry sprung to be a major driver of our economy throughout the second half of the last century.
The Monmake concept is an exciting one, but for it to work effectively it will need not only commitment from industry practitioners but also active support from our tourism and heritage structures. Its incorporation in Monaghan Co Council’s tourism strategy, and in the annual programme of heritage activities undertaken in the county, would be important assists.
Our local authority will also shortly be asked to vary the existing Co Development Plan to allow for alternative uses for some of the redundant furniture factory buildings which were originally assigned planning permission for industrial purposes. “The legacy of redundant and vacant buildings that were formerly used within the wood and furniture sector must be viewed as an opportunity to develop new and innovative uses and bring them back to life,” stated Co Council Cathaoirleach Pádraig McNally on Friday. “They are after all key assets in our landscape.” Hopefully Colr McNally’s elected colleagues will share his views and facilitate the realisation of the potential of assets that could very quickly turn to derelict liabilities the local authority will ultimately have to deal with by other means if new uses are not found for them.
The assistance that Monaghan Co Council can give to the implementation of the action plan for the furniture sector will further the realisation of that body’s new economic development remit.
And the key role assigned to the Monaghan Institute in actuating the plan’s training, apprenticeship and design elements will tap further into the deep potential this education and training establishment has to be a major driver of prosperity for our county and region. By developing new work-based learning initiatives and apprenticeship and traineeship programmes attuned to the changing needs of the furniture sector, and by contributing to the evolution of the envisaged Monaghan-based design and innovation centre for the industry, the Institute will be acting as perhaps the most influential determining force in bringing this recovery vision from development into implementation.
Perhaps the most positive element of this Local Action Plan, and the comments made by industry, Government and local authority voices in its launching, is that in them is nowhere contained any mention of diminution of quality.
“Dumbing down”, trying to play the foreign producers of cheap imports and the flatpack brigade at their own game, would have been the easiest recovery route for the Monaghan furniture industry to take – but the hallmark of quality has always been synonymous with the furniture produced in this county, and the implicit commitment in its recovery plan not to recant on this principle, is arguably the most reliable guarantor for its success.
The Monaghan WoodFoot Print project has produced an excellent document – a new design for an industry that is still standing after a sustained assault on its resilience, and can again stand tall if its Local Action Plan is embraced by trade practitioners and supported by Government, the local authority and, crucially, by the people of Co Monaghan through purchasing loyalty exercised towards locally produced furniture of assured quality.

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