Apple's Vice President of European Operations has said she expects the company to continue investing heavily and growing in Ireland in the coming years.

Cathy Kearney was speaking as Apple celebrates its 40th anniversary in Cork.

The company has invested hundreds of millions of euro in Cork over the past decade and doubled its workforce there to more than 6,000 people over the past five years.

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Its 40th anniversary in Cork comes against a backdrop of a high stakes and protracted court case involving Apple, Ireland and the European Commission.

The issues divided public opinion here.

In its ruling, the General Court of the European Union found that Apple was not liable for a tax bill of €13.1bn, which the European Commission said was owed to Ireland.

The Apple production line in Cork in 2020

In an interview with RTÉ News, Ms Kearney said she expects investment to continue, based on the strength of the relationships between Apple in Cork and Apple's headquarters in the US.

"I really don't see that changing at all," she said.

"You look at the substance, you look at the level of investment, the functions and the variety of functions we have here and I can only think with optimism and look at that with optimism in terms of the future of Apple in Ireland."

She said Ireland had won investment from Apple based on the reputation for delivery built by staff in Cork over many years.

The Cork plant in 1985

"You can look around our facilities and you can see that we have spent a lot of money in terms of upgrading and constantly investing in our facilities as well - that's not going to change," Ms Kearney said.

"As I say, because of the strength of our team, their capabilities, their absolute determination to get the job done, I think we have just got a very strong reputation with the teams globally."

Apple's iPhone continues to be the major revenue generator for the company, but services such as Apple Music, Apple TV+ and Apple Fitness+ are playing an increasingly important role within the company.

Apple in Cork has already begun to build teams and expertise in areas such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, as well as in developer relations.

Ms Kearney said these areas were "evolving".

"On the services side, I think there will be more [growth] and that's an area that will be interesting for the future," she said. "Will lots of jobs materialilse? I have no idea. Is it an area of interest? Yes."

Apple continues to manufacture too at its Cork campus, maintaining a link with the opening of the plant as a manufacturing facility in November 1980.

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The iMac CTO, or configure to order, is manufactured in Cork. This allows customers to effectively 'build' their own personalised iMac to bespoke configurations.

Apple's Cork campus is unique within the company, in that it is the only Apple-owned manufacturing location in the world.

Ireland's cost base does not generally favour manufacturing in this country, relative to other low-cost economies, but Ms Kearney described the case for continuing manufacturing at Apple in Cork as "compelling", from the point of view of customer choice and lead time on delivery.

"We are a long distance from China in terms of lead time and that does make a difference for us - having that capability within region is really important for us," she said.

Last July, at the General Court of the European Union, Apple and Ireland won their appeal against the European Commission's ruling that Apple owed the Irish State €13.1bn in unpaid taxes.

Apple CEO Tim Cook takes a tour of the Cork plant with Cathy Kearney earlier this year

Notwithstanding that judgment, the issue of Apple's tax bills in Ireland remains hugely contentious for many.

The court annulled the decision of the commission that two Apple companies had effectively been granted State aid by Ireland. The European Commission is appealing the case.

Apple insists it is the biggest taxpayer in the world and says it is "possibly" the biggest taxpayer in Ireland as well.

"They [taxes] are necessary for public services; they are necessary for hospitals; they are necessary for schools," Ms Kearney said.

"So there has never been a question of us not paying what a government has asked us in any country in the world. We have always paid everything the government has said to pay, we pay, and we have done that in every country in which we operate."

She said the State aid case never caused Apple to question its commitment to Ireland.

Apple has doubled its Cork workforce to more than 6,000 people over the past five years

Ms Kearney admitted that coping with the Covid-19 pandemic had been tough for Apple, even though it was better placed than many other tech companies.

In 2012, Apple established a pilot programme and moved 50 on-site advisors home. The pilot was so successful that the number of 'At Home Advisors' grew rapidly and numbered over 1,000 by the time the pandemic arrived in Ireland last March.

Apple had a blueprint and was able to facilitate many more staff working from home as the first wave of Covid-19 took hold in this country and restrictions were imposed.

But in a business that relies on creativity and close interaction it was difficult, Ms Kearney said. She insisted that the health and safety of employees was the number one priority for Apple.

"When it hit, everybody was, like, 'Oh my God, what are we doing; what should we do?', and so it was a really challenging time," she said. "I think we are now in a much more stable, understanding environment."

She said manufacturing continued on site under strict protocols, while many of those working in Applecare were able to work from home.

People working on new product teams were involved in Apple's "most prolific time period ever" in terms of product launches and the challenges they faced working remotely were greatest, Ms Kearney explained.

She said she was both shocked and amazed that Apple has been able to continue launching new products in that environment.

"Hopefully, I think there's a little bit more light on the horizon now, and hopefully that will buoy people's spirits," she added.

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