Cork harbour is a bustling axis where hope and history ebb and swell

The centuries-old port today accounts for 20pc of all Irish imports and exports. It is also a major employment hub, reports Tommy Barker

CORK harbour is on the cusp of change — again. There’s a more diverse range of uses than ever before beckoning in the harbour with major tourism, leisure, research, employment and port projects for Ringaskiddy, along with Haulbowline and Spike Islands, set to alter the harbour’s axis of activity and employment nodes for decades and generations to come.

Major harbour presence, the Port of Cork, is currently back making the case for an €80m phased port activity relocation and consolidation at Ringaskiddy, in the lower harbour.

The plans, after 2013’s non-statutory public consultations and three February 2014 harbour public information meetings and 3D demonstrations, go to An Bord Pleanála (ABP) once more, next month, to allow for its envisaged strategic growth and evolution. These are set to match global shipping changes and to be phased in over the next 20 years.

It is the Port’s second, and smaller, bite at the cherry of relocating downstream from its current constrained city docks and Tivoli bases, with a major Ro-Ro and container facility at the heart of its Ringaskiddy plans, to be served by a 180-metre deep water berth extension, and a second new 200-metre berth. Previously, the Port of Cork had far more ambitious and costly plans, up to €200m, rejected by the planning body back in 2008. An Bord Pleanála cited infrastructure shortcomings at the single lane N28 main route to Ringaskiddy, at pinchpoints like Shanbally and Shannon Park Roundabout by Carrigaline, as well as at the Dunkettle interchange/ Jack Lynch tunnel, along with the lack of a rail link for cargo distribution.

Since that 2008 planning rejection shock, bodies such as the Port, IDA, Chamber of Commerce, (calling it “a catalyst project that deserves priority status”) and others have been steadily lobbying for an upgrade to dual-lane standard of the N28, from Ringaskiddy to the south ring road at Bloomfield interchange by Rochestown. It’s likely to cost several hundred million euro, a precise route is not yet finalised and CPO and EIS activities have been put ‘on hold’ by the NRA, pending funding. Sources say it could be 2020 before it is ready, around the time the Port of Cork’s first phase new berth could be in operation. In the interim Cork County Council has come up with adjustments to junctions on the N28. As a cost comparison, the two N40 Cork flyovers at Wilton and Bandon Road were completed July last year, at a cost of €60m.

Behind the scenes and albeit at a glacial pace, Port of Cork has been addressing the rail access issue raised by the Bord by negotiating a joint industry purchase of the 46-acre strategic site of the former NET/IFI plant at Marino Point, on the Cork-Cobh rail line, likely to sell for around €8m.

Last month’s three public meetings once more raised Ringaskiddy residents’ and other harbour communities’ concerns of such further harbour development, citing increased noise, dirt, light pollution, ecological impact and other factors, while campaigners like Monkstown resident Don Teegan of the Cork Harbour Environmental Protection Association claims “Ringaskiddy was the wrong location in 2008 and it remains the wrong location in 2014.” CHEPA argues that the right location for a container terminal is on the north side of the River Lee, nearer M8 and N25 routes and the North Ring, and with proximity to freight and rail lines.

For its part, Port of Cork’s Commercial Manager Michael McCarthy says the increasing size and draught of ships dictates the necessity to move to its land bank at Ringaskiddy, and adds their move will free up their current sites in the city and at Tivoli (which had a rail link) for higher end uses.

However, the economic downturn has slashed dockland redevelopment site values near the city and Tivoli, dampened Celtic Tiger era and planners’ enthusiasm for thousands of apartments on the quays. It has also witnessed Port of Cork’s own business activity slacken, although it can be argued the Port’s levels of import /export activity will pick up again faster than appetite for grandiose docks regeneration schemes like the ill-fated Howard Holdings’ €1bn, ‘Atlantic Quarter’ project.

In fact, despite the straitened economy in the past seven years, port activity in Cork is on the rise again, with over nine million tonnes trafficked last year, and with turnover for 2012 about €22m, down from a record of €25m in 2007, when it handled over 10m tonnes of goods. The Government’s Food Harvest 2020 plan, seeking to boost Irish food exports by 42% by the end of the decade, will see a rise in exports through ports, as well as imports of raw materials like animal feed and fertilisers.

Traditionally, Cork is Ireland’s second busiest port, after Dublin, handling almost 20% of Irish imports and exports; 98% of such Irish trade (by volume) comes by ship via ports like Cork, Dublin, Waterford, Foynes and Galway. Cork’s a Tier 1 Irish port, and secured European TEN-T recognition and funding. Its submission to An Bord Pleanála next month for strategic development comes just as Dublin Port Company applies to the Bórd or its own €200m expansion at Alexandra Basin. ABP rejected Dublin Port’s plans to infill 21 hectares in Dublin Bay in 2008; ironically Dublin now looks back upriver to its city quays, as Cork Port looks downriver to its harbour.

On the broader front, Cork has been a working port and harbour, and a strategic defensive hub, for centuries, and it has been one of Ireland’s major employment hubs since the early 1900s. Traditional, heavy, (and sometimes dirty) industries have waned in recent years, with the likes of the closure of Irish Steel in Haulbowline, ship-building at Verolme — and IFI in Marino Point, now firmly in Port of Cork’s sights.

It still has major and strategic significance in energy generation, shipping, refining and, most importantly, pharmaceuticals.

It is now bidding to add thousands of new jobs in marine and energy research and innovations at Ringaskiddy, as well as in increased tourism offers.

Employment in the harbour/ Ringaskiddy area is upwards of 7,000, headed up by a cluster of pharma industries, and followed on by the Naval service with 1,050 personnel (and due the new €80m Le Samuel Beckett vessel by this summer), the National Maritime College, IMERC and related research institutes like the €15m Beaufort Lab currently being built and which holds the promise of thousands of other ‘cluster’ jobs.

Then, there’s significant other employment coming from port activities, haulage, storage, logistics, light manufacturing and energy production in the east harbour where, pointedly, the completion of a €360m new gas-fired plant for the ESB resulted in just 80 full-time jobs. There’s around 180 jobs in the Whitegate refinery, which processes three million tonnes of oil a year and where, despite plans for a sell-off by owners Phillips 66, commitments are in place until 2016.

The harbour’s bulwarking pharmal industry started off in Cork in the 1970s with the arrival of pharma giant Pfizer who’ve since invested €7bn in its Irish plants. It set the seeds for decades of chemical, pharma/biopharm and life-sciences companies to follow in Pfizer’s wake, creating one of Ireland’s most successful ‘clusters’ of associated industries and employers – about 4,000 directly employed in the sector in Cork harbour at current levels.

Clustering like this has worked in Ireland’s favour in terms of attracting Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). Dublin is a leading global hub in IT and financial services sectors, with many tens of thousands of jobs attracted by this sort of grouping. Cork and Galway have acknowledged medical device clusters. Cork was a forerunner in developing a pharma cluster, over an impressive 45-year time span, with nine very significant firms alone in the harbour, and other outliers like Eli Lilly near Kinsale, where a €330m expansion spend is coming to a conclusion.

A 2013 Forfas annual employment survey shows 3,400 jobs in permanent and temporary IDA client companies in Cork’s harbour catchment, and where the IDA continues to market its land bank of 143 hectares. The figure is up from just over 3,000, in 2009 – but, while extremely significant, is now eclipsed in recent years by the employment strength of other major Cork-based tech firms like Apple and EMC, who between them employ over 7,000 in Cork.

Major employers in the harbour basin here include GSK, Hovione, Biromarin, Pfizer, De Puy, Janssen biologics, Moog, Novartis and Recordati, supported by third level institutes like UCC and CIT. And the IDA also estimates that for every ten jobs in FDI-backed firms, a further seven jobs follow on in the wider and service economy, education sectors, etc.

While traditional pharma models are showing signs of age, with long-successful products coming off patent, the sector is evolving, with on-going investment especially in life-sciences and biopharma. In recent months, and after several tranches of job losses and retrenchments, Pfizer confirmed a 95m Irish plant investment, with the bulk of this going to Grange Castle in Dublin and €22m to its main Cork, Ringaskiddy site. In January, US biopharma company Biomarin confirmed a jobs’ boost from 100 to 140 at a Shanbally site it bought three years ago from Pfizer. Biomarin said its decision was due to infrastructure, routes to market, expansion possibilities - and availability of skilled personnel amid a scientific community.

Irish Navy in ship shape for challenging times

Cork harbour is a bustling axis where hope and history ebb and swell
The Naval Service guard of honour prepares for a visit of then President Mary McAleese to its state-of-the-art facility at the National Maritime College of Ireland and Naval Base, in Ringaskiddy, in October 2011.

IT’S all change at the Irish Naval Service: it has a new commandeer, Commodore Hugh Tully, as flag officer; it’s getting a new €80m ship, the LE Samuel Beckett, (its largest yet, and the first Irish navy ship to bear a man’s name) in the coming weeks. Also, due to global warming and climate change, it is facing choppier waters. Literally.

“The seas are getting worse, and getting bigger: it’s empirical. There was a record, 25m wave recorded last month at the Kinsale gas rigs, out where we patrol. We can see the changes,” a senior Navy figure says of a storm-generated mountain of water, one of the many enormous waves that have wreaked havoc on the south and west coasts since January.

So, it’s just as well the new, P60 class LE Samuel Beckett will have better seaworthiness and anti-heeling capability than its departing predecessors (the LE Emer was sold, October last, to an African businessman for just €320,000). The LE Samuel Beckett will maintain its coordinate position more easily, without needing anchors, making it better as a diving-support platform and for underwater surveys, while its deck can hold three 40-foot containers, making it useful for resupply missions for Irish troops serving abroad, or for humanitarian supply-delivery missions.

With a strength of eight ships and 1,094 personnel, of which 450 are on sea-going units, the old joke, back in the days of the three-mile jurisdiction limit of being a navy ‘that went home for its tea’, has long-since passed. Apart from security/defence goals, it’s tasked with fishery protection for Irish and EU waters up to a 20-mile limit, ocean governance and pollution control, ‘search and rescue’ and drug-busting. It’s been directly involved in the seizure of €1.2bn of illegal drug shipments in the past decade. Ireland’s rich fishing waters are almost as legitimately lucrative, reaping €700m a year for the economy and, last year, the Naval Service boarded almost 1,000 vessels (591 foreign-registered) and detained 16.

“There’ll always be a case for ‘boots on deck;’ if you claim jurisdiction, you have to look after it, so you need vessels at sea,” says a senior officer. The Navy has been based at the 80-acre Haulbowline Island, in the defensive core of Cork harbour since 1938, when key Irish ports were handed back to the Irish government by Britain. From this base, it continues a naval tradition stretching back to the 1600s (in the last century, the base was used by British and US navy destroyers and sloops during WW1, making vital U-boat interceptions in the North East Atlantic. The sinking of the Lusitania off Kinsale, 100 years ago next year, was one that wasn’t intercepted).

Ten years ago, the Navy became a partner with CIT, in setting up the National Maritime College of Ireland at Ringaskiddy. In 2012 the service had 1,600 applicants for training places, and ‘attested’ 120 in what was seen as an exceptional intake. That fell to 42 in 2013. New recruitment was promised just last week by the Government, for future Defence and Navy posts.

Recently, too, the Irish Naval Service has partnered with CIT and UCC in the neighbouring Irish Marine and Energy Research Cluster, IMERC, on the expanding Ringaksiddy campus, itself becoming a post-modern naval service and ‘knowledge institution’ with an emerging culture of innovation.

Through NMCI and IMERC, the Navy says “we’re increasingly engaging with civil society, the IMERC is a perfect platform for this and helping to grow the maritime economy as well.”

It is leveraging its human capital and vast expertise in marine, telecommunications and surveillance matters, and, for some personnel, it also leaves open doors for shore-based jobs after years spent gaining broad experience at sea.

One of the research projects it is engaging with at IMERC is in the possible use of large kites, above ships crossing oceans, to help reduce energy costs. The Navy sees a way of integrating this with surveillance technology, literally helping it to see over the horizon — and that’s no kite-flying.

Vibrancy of port makes good TV

Cork harbour is a bustling axis where hope and history ebb and swell
Paul Cleary, Berny Bos and Laura McGann of Goldhawk Media who were “blown away” by the vibrancy of Cork’s working port.

Day-to-day activities in and around Cork harbour are to feature in four, one- hour long episodes filmed for TV3 since Christmas. The footage includes time-lapse/CCTV footage of the city centre going under water as floods repeatedly arrived, waves lashing Cobh and attempts to rescue a shipping container blown into the Lee by 120kph winds.

There’s also naval exercises off the harbour, as well as a Customs dog called Max going ship-board with a tiny Go-Pro camera strapped to his back — as he follows his nose in a search for contraband. It could well be titled ‘every dog has his day.’

Up to four film crews roved around the harbour’s 100-mile indented shoreline, and voyaged further beyond with the Irish Navy, whilst dozens of people working in the port’s many facets are shadowed and interviewed.

Separately, mini Go-Pro cameras were mounted on flying drones, on the buckets of cranes digging out tonnes of animal feeds from ship holds. And, amongst cargoes from cars to cornflakes, there’s a whole bunch of bananas to be discovered. About four million bananas, to be precise, along with other exotic fruits, pass through Cork port en route to European destinations each week from Central America, rekindling the legendary ‘banana boat’ trade via Cork of the 1970s.

The previously unseen views and perspectives come gratis of fresh pairs of eyes that spotted the series potential in one of Ireland’s busiest, and most diverse, ports. After a successful pitch to TV3, it’s being made and currently edited by UK-based Goldhawk Media, an award-winning docu-team for British and global audiences and channels such as Discovery and National Geographic, and which also filmed Dover: The Port, as far back as 1997.

“Cork knocks Dover for six,” reckon Goldhawk directors Paul Cleary and Bernadette (Berny) Bos. They visited Cork back in March of last year, and even though both have Irish parents, it was Paul’s first time ever in Ireland – and he admits to being blown away by the region, and the vibrancy of Cork’s port in particular.

“We took a drive down to the south-west, around Bantry and every turn in the road opened a new, world-class vista. People in Ireland probably take it for granted, and especially Cork harbour, but we found the people who work in the port are just so knowledgeable, they have a real civic pride and just love it.

One of the harbour pilots, who used to be a sea captain, reckons he has the best job in Ireland,” says Paul, in admiration of the people who hop on and off ships, from pilot boats in waves of 4.5m, to clamber up flimsy ladders to bring ships to a safe berth, products to shop shelves, and Irish exports to markets abroad.

Paul Cleary some of the ships and their journeys as “epic”, and feels viewers will be as engrossed as they’ve become by the port characters whose work they follow, and by the web of ocean travel the ships and their passages around the globe knit, weaving in and out of one of the world’s great harbours.

Cork–Mega Port starts on TV3 on Monday, April 28.

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