'This will be the biggest transformation in Irish ports for the next 15 years'
- Brendan Keating CEO, Port of Cork
Port of Cork CEO Keating sees big future for ?86m Ringaskiddy cargo hub
by Shawn Pogatchnik
July 16 2020 02:30 AM
Cargo ships keep getting bigger - and Brendan Keating is positioning Cork to become their first Irish port of call.
The sprawling operations of the Port of Cork Company already host the largest weekly arrival of any cargo ship to the island, the Maersk service from Central America carrying bananas and other fruits sold by Fyffes, Keelings and other food distributors nationwide.
Cork is a key arrival point for Ireland's oil and animal feed, too.
But Keating sees a near future when Cork becomes Ireland's main port for much bigger shipments from continental Europe and America. That vision is taking shape right now at Ringaskiddy.
He has spent much of his 18 years as Port of Cork chief executive seeking to develop that deep-water facility 20km south-east of Cork city into the port's main hub.
After nearly a decade of planning and two years of sometimes fractious relations with primary contractors BAM Civil, Keating expects the new ?86m Cork Container Terminal to open by early 2021.
First: ICL has launched a weekly service connecting Ireland directly with ports in US
He describes the facility, with a 13.5-metre depth and 360-metre berth, as a game-changer. The transatlantic cargo vessels which, for decades, have passed Ireland without stopping will finally have a sufficiently long and deep dock to accommodate them.
"Hand on heart, this will be the biggest transformational change in the port sector on the island of Ireland for the next 10 to 15 years," Keating says. "Dublin Port can't do what we'll be able to do. We'll attract much larger vessels."
While Brexit threatens to constrain UK trade on many fronts, it could make Cork more valuable as ships seek new harbours and logistical hubs along shipping lanes which will soon lose UK ports from their EU supply chains.
"We will have a geographical advantage, particularly in shipping lines trading between Europe and the Americas," Keating says. "We have major shipping corridors passing the mouth of Cork Harbour. With the new facilities we'll be able to attract a dramatically increased level of business activity."
This decade promises much wider change in a semi-State company overseeing disparate assets: berths along the River Lee, the cargo terminals at Tivoli, Ireland's only oil refinery at privately owned Whitegate, a future bulk terminal in Marino Point, the cruise line hub of Cobh, and a sister port in Bantry.
Keating says the company is discussing with a key financial backer, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, on how best to redevelop Tivoli on the north bank of the River Lee.
That 160-acre site for decades has been the port's main access point for cargo ships but, increasingly, today's vessels are too big and their hulls too deep to get there. Keating estimates even moderately large cargo ships would hit the seabed long before crossing the Jack Lynch Tunnel, never mind reaching the Lee.
"They would probably run aground on the approaches into Lough Mahon," he says.
Understanding the Port of Cork's future starts with TEUs, the standard unit for measuring cargo and short for 'twenty-foot equivalent unit'. A small container is one TEU, a more common 40-foot container two.
While Tivoli can take vessels with maximum cargo of around 1,200 TEUs, Keating says, Ringaskiddy will take ships bearing loads five times as large. These so-called 'Panamax' class ships are small enough to fit through the Panama Canal but still much too big for Irish ports.
These ships carry at least 5,000 TEUs. They require harbours that are at least 13 metres deep.
For now, the single deepwater berth at Ringaskiddy - used mainly for handling bulk cargo including animal feed, scrap and fertiliser - is used to accommodate the few arriving Panamax-sized vessels, chiefly the weekly Maersk service from Central America launched in 2012. But it lacks the fixed cranes, sufficient dockside storage and logistical support that many operators want for efficient discharging and loading of container ships.
Once the Cork Container Terminal at Ringaskiddy opens, operations at Tivoli will be phased out. Keating says that site, 7km east of central Cork, is likely to become home by 2030 to at least 4,500 housing units, a business park and new riverside tourism amenities and berths for leisure craft.
Ringaskiddy, in turn, will become a magnet for European cargo operators which normally stop in England but go right past Ireland. The first to make the 'right turn' into Ringaskiddy is Independent Container Line (ICL), which in June launched a weekly service connecting Ireland directly with ports in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
For now ICL, like Maersk, uses the 'bulk' dock with its slower mobile crane and relatively cramped space.
The Port of Cork originally planned to have the Cork Container Terminal running by the spring of 2020, but faced immediate difficulties with the winning ?46.3m bidder for the main works contract, BAM Civil. Soon after its 2017 award, BAM told the port it had identified an "arithmetical error" in its tender that omitted ?12m in costs. The port took BAM to the Commercial Court to enforce the contract. Work began months late in 2018.
Disputes have continued to delay completion, including most recently for construction of a new jetty at Ringaskiddy.
"We've had delays, absolutely," Keating says. "We had an initial legal dispute with the contractor. And yes, there is an issue at the moment with regard to the construction of a jetty. But we're in discussions with BAM about that as we speak. I'm very confident that the facility will be completed and operational within six months."
When asked to describe the current difficulties, he says: "There's an issue of design and an issue of finance. But we're in discussions. I'm confident it will be resolved."
The headline cost for the new terminal has grown by ?6m in the past two years to ?86m, though Keating says that higher figure includes the cost of two Liebherr ship-to-shore gantry cranes erected in February. The project is being jointly financed by AIB, ISIF, the European Investment Bank and the port itself.
Keating cites the development of Ringaskiddy as his proudest achievement from a career that started, like his father, in local government.
Brendan Keating is the eldest of nine children. His family lived all along Ireland's Atlantic coast as their father, Seamus, worked his way up the local government ladder from Tralee, Co Kerry to Lifford, Co Donegal, finishing up as county manager of Galway.
Brendan spent six years boarding at Rockwell College, his father's alma mater in Cashel, Co Tipperary, where he was a sprinter and on a national champion relay team. He played as a winger, too, on Rockwell's senior cup rugby squad which lost the Munster schools final in 1973 to Christian Brothers Cork.
"Christians were the bane of our lives," he recalls with a laugh. "I'm very often reminded of that defeat as I spent my last 18 years in Cork!"
After graduating from NUI Galway with a degree in business and commerce, he went to work for Sligo Corporation - and met his wife, Aileen, at the local AIB branch on Stephen Street.
"I'd go in to lodge my cheque. I always waited for her window to come open," he says, noting they were wed in 1981 after he relocated to Portlaoise to work in the roads and planning divisions of the Laois council.
The couple both worked for a decade in Co Meath - he for the county council in Navan, she at the AIB branch in Ashbourne - before he gained a big 1994 promotion to be assistant city manager for Cork. He helped develop the council's plans for the Jack Lynch Tunnel, during which he worked closely with port officials.
He won promotion again to become city manager of Limerick in 1999. The family, now grown to include daughters Claire and Niamh and sons Eoin and Niall, resettled in Ballyclough south of the city.
In 2002, the top post at the Port of Cork came open. In the 18 years since, Keating has overseen doubling of cargo to 240,000 TEUs last year, the purchase of the former Irish Fertiliser Industries site at Marino Point in 2017 to be developed as a new deep-water bulk terminal, and the modernisation of Cobh berths that hosted nearly 100 cruise liners carrying 243,000 visitors in 2019.
Cruise traffic was scheduled to grow even more this year - until Covid-19 arrived ahead of St Patrick's Day.
"That's decimated. All gone. We've lost over 100 calls," he says. "As long as the 14-day quarantine remains, it's going to be impossible and most of the cruise liners are in US waters, not Europe. So we're looking at 2021 before we can hope for any recovery there."
That lost tourism means the Port of Cork expects to see its revenues fall by at least 25pc this year, including a potential 5pc drop in cargo. The company reported turnover of ?35.4m in 2018.
Keating sees the port's fortunes tied to growth in cargo traffic at Ringaskiddy. That will mean building warehouse and logistics capacity on the 120-acre site and neighbouring lands. He wants its logistics centre at least doubled in size to 200,000 square feet.
It won't all happen on his watch - because Keating retires on August 31. "While I still have this job," he says, "I'm loving it and enjoying it."