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Light at the end of the tunnel for Tara Mines employees

Driving out the gate of Tara Mines last July, on their last day of work, staff described the situation they were in as “limbo”.

Around 650 people had been laid off and Europe’s largest zinc mine “mothballed”.

Many of the workers had been there for decades. Some of them I spoke to as they left work that day described feeling “gutted”.

“I’m here 20 years. It’s like the end of an era, it’s like a tragedy,” said one man.

Nobody knew then just how long this “temporary” closure of one of the most important employers in Co Meath and the northeast would last.

The mine has been operating since 1977 and its connection to the town of Navan, much like the nature of the industry, runs deep.

You can’t walk through the town without meeting someone who is related to somebody, or had a friend that worked at Tara Mines at one time or another down through the years.

Its almost 50-year link to the people here makes it an intergenerational institution.

With a reputation of offering well-paying jobs, supporting local people and the local economy, it was widely seen as being the “backbone” of the area.

Those workers have now endured months of uncertainty.

Union representatives have said that many workers have had “nine difficult months relying on social welfare”.

Around 50 of them availed of early retirement or voluntary redundancy, others went in search of other jobs to help pay the bills in this intervening period.

But when the mine was placed into “care and maintenance”, retaining only a skeleton staff on site, it was not just the 600-plus laid off employees who were affected.

Job losses were also felt among mining contractors, while cleaning and catering contractors at the Navan mine were also impacted.

The temporary closure had wider ripple effects too.

At the time, it was estimated that between 2,000 and 3,000 jobs in the region were supported by Tara Mines.

Local shops and cafés, where miners would buy coffee or breakfast at the start or end of their long shifts, were among those indirectly hit by the closure.

Among those welcoming news this week of a possible reopening was Ailish McFadden from The Gate Restaurant in Navan.

“It’s great news for everyone involved. We had noticed a slowdown in the evening trade after the mines closed. Hopefully now we can look forward to welcoming everyone back as the evenings lengthen and things return to normal,” she said.

Damien Clarke from P Clarke’s Pub said it was “wonderful news for the town of Navan”.

“The crew from the mines who celebrated birthdays and other events with us were sadly missed for the past nine months. We wish them well with getting everything up and running again,” he said.

Paula McCaul from Co Meath Chamber of Commerce said that retailers in Navan missed the miners’ passing trade, reporting that spending and footfall was down.

She said that while it was difficult to quantify and it could not be put down to the mines alone, there was certainly a belief that the closure was a factor.

The news of a deal to reopen the mine was “hugely welcomed”, said Ms McCaul, adding that it brought a buzz back around the town, along with a sense of optimism and hope.

She hopes that a reopening would have wider ripples of positivity.

“Hopefully the pendulum will swing in the opposite direction now and bring back business and jobs. It’s critically important for Navan itself,” she said.

The nine months of limbo could be about to end, but it will not be an overnight fix.

First, workers will have to vote on the deal that has been brokered between unions and Boliden management at the Workplace Relations Commission earlier this week.

Read more: 160 redundancies as part of deal to reopen Tara Mines

It will be put to them at a general meeting in Navan next Thursday evening, with balloting continuing until 3 May.

The group of unions at the mine, SIPTU, Unite and Connect, will be recommending that workers accept the deal, which they say protects their core terms and conditions.

It will also result in around 160 voluntary redundancies, with an “enhanced” package from what was previously on offer from the company.

If the deal is accepted, it is expected that the reopening of the mine will commence in June – exactly one year since Boliden first announced its plans to temporarily shut it down.

Back then, Boliden said its decision was unavoidable and that it came down to a decline in the price of zinc as well as high energy prices and inflation.

Even now, in a letter to staff this week, management at the company said that there were “continuing external market challenges”.

In light of that, the company said it believed the proposals agreed were the “best possible”, and ones that would “safeguard the long-term future of the operation”.

Looking to the future, the company said the deal will allow the mine to recommence work at the Tara Deep resource, which it said has the potential to substantially extend the life of the mine, as well as ensuring it can continue to provide large scale employment for decades to come.

That is something the people of Navan, Co Meath, and indeed the northeast region will be hoping for.

The phased or gradual reopening could take place over a six or seven-month period before the operation resumes in full.

But after nine months of limbo, for those Tara Mines employees, whose days are spent underground, there could now be light at the end of the tunnel.

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