The country’s recent boom years were coming to an end. The impact of the oil crisis in 1973 was significant for a country that depended on imports for almost three-quarters of its energy requirements.
The knock-on effects on the balance of payments and inflation were severe and reflected, yet again, Ireland’s susceptibility to external economic pressure.
The registration of new cars and commercial vehicles went from 74,985 in 1973 to 53,443 in 1975 and back up to 70,577 the following year, illustrating the rapidity with which things could change in the industry in that decade.
A former financial executive of Henry Ford & Son noted: “In the car industry, you go from good times to bad times, very, very fast.”
Soaring fuel prices as a result of the various oil crises of the 1970s further dramatically changed motoring globally and a push began towards smaller and more energy-efficient vehicles.
More pertinantly, Ireland’s EEC accession would have an impact on the scheme governing the assembly and importation of motor vehicles that had been negotiated in the previous decade.
Read more: Former Taoiseach Jack Lynch's proud ownership of a Ford Cortina
This clearly did not conform to the principles of free trade, as espoused by the body. Safeguard measures for the motor vehicle assembly industry became an issue high on the priority list in negotiations between the EEC and the Irish delegation, led by Minister for External Affairs, Dr PJ Hillery.
A government publication on the motor assembly industry sums up the outcome of these deliberations in July 1971:
“As part of the arrangements for the transitional period of EEC membership, a special 12-year protocol was negotiated for the motor industry. This grew out of the recognition that motor assembly on the small scale prevalent in Ireland was unlikely to be viable in full free trade conditions."
"The aim therefore was to provide a breathing space during which the industry could maintain employment at the highest possible level while at the same time carry out the necessary steps towards diversification or specialisation which would provide longer run opportunities for profitable operations in competitive conditions.”
The efforts of Dr Hillery were a surprising breakthrough, after long and tense negotiations, but the bottom line was that from January 1, 1985, all quota restrictions on the importation of FBU vehicles from any other country would be removed and the existing assemblers would be no longer obliged to assemble in order to import these vehicles.
It became more apparent that the signature of a Corkman, Jack Lynch, endorsing Ireland’s accession into the EEC would have serious consequences in his home city.
By 1977, the number of companies involved in the assembly of motor vehicles in Ireland had been reduced from a 1962 level of 22 to just 14. However, there does not seem to have been any overt anxiety with regard to what lay ahead for Ford in Cork.
Henry Ford II paid a visit to the Marina to mark the company’s 60th anniversary in June 1977 and spoke optimistically of the future, indicating plans were evolving to create 800 jobs in the near future.
“Certainly, we look at Ford of Ireland as a vital link in the Ford of Europe sales and manufacturing chain. That is why I see no reason for any reduction in the Cork plant’s importance,” he said.
“The almost 20,000 new Ford vehicles we are building in Ireland this year create a continuing demand for Irish-made paints, glass, tyres and tubes, upholstery materials, batteries, lamp bulbs, and spark plugs that go into their assembly.”
But by early 1984, the clock was ticking. Rumours in a city the size of Cork quickly spread and it cannot have been encouraging to hear the Dagenham foundry was closing with a loss of 2,000 jobs. There were now only three companies assembling motor vehicles in Ireland.
As the 1985 deadline loomed, Ford management anxiously looked for alternative options that might save the workforce. None was forthcoming and on January 17, 1984, Paddy Hayes announced to the assembled 1,100 employees that production would cease towards the end of the year.
The cocktail of influences; high domestic inflation; plant inefficiency and the inability to cope with free trade conditions, were too much for the Marina. A total of 800 jobs would go.
Interviews I undertook with former employees revealed that while many were shocked by the announcement, an almost equal proportion had anticipated the factory’s demise.
“There had been talk about it for years,” was one typical response, as was “It came as a bombshell.”
In retrospect, it is, in some ways, incredible that there was any palpable level of surprise in 1984 — especially considering the time-constrained nature of the arrangements that had been bargained by Dr Hillery.
However, one former director noted: “Nobody in Ireland believed that Ford would ever close.
It just couldn’t happen, they said. Ford was there since 1917, t’will never close, but it did. And we knew that we’d have to close it. Because, to have the modern facilities of doing mass production, you had to have automation and you couldn’t have automation unless you were doing about 200,000 units a year. We were doing much, much less than that.”
Another retired director was quick to note: “We had conditioned the workforce, over two years, to what was happening.We didn’t suddenly walk out one January morning in ’84 and say ‘we’re closing the plant’.
They had been well aware that things were happening, even nationally, assembly plants here were closing. It was still a shock and it was traumatic for all of us involved but it wasn’t completely out of the blue. It was just economics.”
It is a little eerie to note that the plant closed its gates for the final time on Friday the 13th of, July, 1984.
There is little disagreement as to the enormous impact the closure had on the city and ancillary industries. It was a stressful time for the economy and indeed the many families who depended on Fords in various ways.
The closure – along with the similar action taken by the Dunlop plant – brought the number of jobs lost in the city, since September of the previous year, to at least 1,800. But just as the gains for the previous 67 years had been more than financial, so too were the losses.
As one worker told me: “I haven’t gone down to the plant since it stopped, no, it wouldn’t be the same. Ah, the plant was the plant, it was the people inside it, it was the people inside it.”