Saturday 20 January 2018

'It's like Willy Wonka's factory: off-bounds and a bit removed'

Blow-ins: Apple employs 6,000 people at its Cork campus and across Ireland
Blow-ins: Apple employs 6,000 people at its Cork campus and across Ireland
John Meagher

John Meagher

The suburb of Knocknaheeny on the northside of Cork city is still comparatively young. Up until the early 1970s, this upland area was rolling countryside; today its sprawling estates are home to 4,500 people.

Within a few years of the first houses going up, it became known as a district with a reputation for crime and anti-social behaviour. Joyriding and drug problems were depressingly common and it was said that some employers wouldn't take on anybody living in the area.

It wasn't the first place one would think a bright young start-up from Silicon Valley, California, would choose for its first overseas HQ, but in October 1980 Apple set up shop here. The company was just four years' old at the time and had been encouraged to do business here by the Industrial Development Authority (IDA), the Irish agency founded in 1956 that had helped transform the country into a hub for multinationals.

When the Apple plant at Knocknaheeny opened its doors, several computing firms were already well established in the country, including Ericsson and Wang. That same year - 1980 - Fujitsu also established a base in Ireland.

Hugely advantageous inducements - including capital grants and a corporation tax rate of 12.5pc - made Ireland something of a Mecca for US firms looking for a foothold into Europe.

In his open letter this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook talked about how Apple arrived in Cork at a time when it was in the doldrums financially. "At the time, Cork was suffering from high unemployment and extremely low economic investment," he wrote. "But Apple's leaders saw a community rich with talent, and one they believed could accommodate growth if the company was fortunate enough to succeed."

Some 60 employees were taken on by the company in 1980 and the figure grew steadily. Today, more than 6,000 people across Ireland are employed by Apple, according to Cook, and he says, "The vast majority are still in Cork - including some of the very first employees - now performing a wide variety of functions as part of Apple's global footprint. Countless multinational companies followed Apple by investing in Cork, and today the local economy is stronger than ever."

Such bold words, however, fail to acknowledge the work the IDA had done in bringing foreign investment to Ireland and conveniently ignores the fact that Cork suffered terribly from a jobs point of view in the mid-1980s. Within 12 months of each other in 1983 and 1984, long established firms Dunlop and Ford closed their operations, forcing roughly 1,650 employees out of work. At the same time Cork Dockland - one of the city's most venerable employers - experienced huge numbers of lay-offs.

"They were tough times for the city," says Kieran McCarthy, an Independent city councillor and author of 17 history books on the area, "and it's hard to quantify the sort of impact Apple have made since they've been here.

"There are a lot of employees now but it's a bit like Willy Wonka's factory, in that there's a secretive feel to it. It's off-bounds and a bit removed."

McCarthy says it hasn't engaged with the wider Cork community in the way other firms have and "doesn't seem to have much interest in sponsorships, or anything like that". The Apple logo, he insists, is unlikely to be emblazoned on the blood red jerseys of Cork's hurling and Gaelic football teams any time soon.

Meanwhile, despite the uncertainty surrounding the European Commission ruling, Cook is adamant that Apple will "go forward" with planned expansion in Cork. "Ireland is being picked on," he told the Irish Independent, "and this is unacceptable."

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