Adrian Weckler analysis: This will go down as a bit of a shambles
Regardless of where anyone stands on data centres or their pros and cons, there has to be a quicker way of deciding things nationally.
Apple announced plans to build an €850m data centre in Athenry in February 2015. In May 2018, it is still facing a further potential delay of two or three years, given the prospect of a European appeal.
Due process and judicial oversight are important in a civil society. But so, surely, is certainty.
Maybe the objections to Apple’s data centre are justified, maybe they’re not.
The question for us is why we can’t make our mind up on it.
There has to be some prospect of a decision on issues -- whether sustained or rejected -- in a period quicker than three years.
Let’s not forget that in the same time that our Irish system has been faxing its way through a relatively straightforward industrial planning application, Denmark has largely completed its first Apple data centre (of the same size and investment level) and is starting a second one.
To be clear, this isn’t to dismiss objections to this — or any — big industrial project.
But for the country, it’s one thing not to want a data centre built. It’s another to want it to be built, but to let the project drift away because we can’t make a decision on it.
Does this show any cooling of the relationship between Apple and Ireland?
It doesn’t look like it. The company’s Cork facility is still adding jobs. Officially the headcount stands at just over 6,000. But this is expected to increase, rather than decrease, this year.
The collection of the €13bn in tax appears also to have been managed delicately without infecting the industrial relationship between the government and Apple.
There is a separate question about the desirability (or otherwise) of data centre.
I’ve heard arguments suggesting that data centres aren’t worth getting worked up about, that they don’t result in many jobs beyond the initial construction project so we shouldn’t care too much.
Don’t tell that to the people of Athenry.
Having spoken to many there, there are few who don’t regard a huge project like this as anything other than an opportunity.
It’s not just the 50 permanent jobs that would have come from it (although 50 decent-paying jobs in an area such as that creates an economic multiplier effect that few in leafy areas of cities seem to appreciate).
It’s the boost they said it would give them in confidence. Confidence is a huge thing. It can be the difference between someone deciding whether to leave an area or stay there.
Many believe that if a major facility goes into an area, that area is less likely to be overlooked for other infrastructural projects and services, possibly including broadband or roads.
In Ireland, they’re probably right. Our industrial history over the last 20 years is full of examples where a multinational company dips its toe into an area and gradually deepens its investment, often adding other elements to its presence, such as support, sales, finance and engineering operations.
Like it or not, Ireland’s greater economic welfare is still inextricably bound to such external investment here.
The IDA, which is the entity most likely to hear of concerns about investing in Ireland first, is acutely aware of all of this. It recently initiated a process by which potential new data centre sites around the country could see planning permission sought ahead of actual tenants being found for the sites.
It’s a shame that the state body has to go to these lengths. Ireland can no longer afford to be as slow at planning.