Wednesday 19 December 2018

We can't afford more 'Athenrys'

Denmark has completed its first Apple data centre and is working on a second. Photo: Reuters
Denmark has completed its first Apple data centre and is working on a second. Photo: Reuters
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

I've always winced at the remark "how very Irish". I hate its connotations around a cultural predilection toward being "cute". But the events surrounding Apple's proposed data centre in Athenry brought the phrase to mind.

As the High Court adjudged last week, one of the main objectors to the Galway development, Brian McDonagh, was also trying to promote his own Wicklow-based site to Apple for the investment project.

"In his affidavit, (Stephen Griffin)outlines a conversation in which Mr McDonagh asked whether, in the light of the judicial proceedings which had been initiated in respect of the Athenry development at that time, he could make it known to Apple that there was a site in Co Wicklow which had the benefit of planning permission for a data-centre development," wrote Judge Paul McDermott in the court's ruling.

So one factor in the two-year delay of a major infrastructural amenity in an under-served part of the country involves someone thinking he might make a few quid in stopping it.

How very Irish.

The High Court dismissed McDonagh's grounds of relevance.

"The applicant has no connection with the proposed development, in that he is not resident in the area where it is located, nor will he personally be affected by it," wrote the judge.

McDonagh, he added, had objected "on the grounds of local and conservation interests in the destruction of forest in the county of Galway".

However, "he had not hitherto raised any concern or adduced any relevant evidence in respect of the proposed effect of the development on forestry or any other aspect of the environment in Co Galway."

Let's take a step back from this for a second. Anyone has the right to use our judicial system to remedy something they believe to be unfair or outside the law. And in fairness to Brian McDonagh, he has every right to use the system as it is constituted to advance any potential interest - commercial or otherwise - he sees. But why are we allowing appeals like this to take almost three years?

It is simply taking too long to adjudicate on issues that hold up billion-euro projects, which are otherwise widely accepted as industrial progress.

To be clear, there was more to the Athenry objections than issues raised by McDonagh.

A separate objection made by local residents Allan Daly and Sinead Fitzpatrick was based on environmental concerns.

Other points, such as the potential strain on the national power grid, have also emerged in looking closer at the issues involved.

These issues are interesting and worth discussing.

But there has to be some sort of resolution to them - whether objections are sustained or rejected - in a period quicker than two years.

Let's not forget that in the same time as our Irish system has been faxing and dial-up-calling its way through a relatively straightforward industrial planning application, Denmark has completed its first Apple data centre (of the same size and investment level) and is now starting a second one.

"There has been reputational damage to Ireland from what is happening in Athenry," says Tanya Duncan, managing director of Interxion, one of the biggest 'carrier-neutral' data-centre companies operating in this country.

"This is especially so among the hyperscale players at the level of the Amazons and the Googles.

"There will be big companies who are thinking about putting their data centres in Ireland and now wondering, 'Is there something up here?'

"Maybe when they dig into it, they'll discover that this sort of thing won't affect them. But certainly, there would now be certain organisations questioning the option where they wouldn't before."

It's one thing not to want a data centre built. It's another to want it but to let the project drift away because we're Irish, with Irish ways of doing things.

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 people in the area, 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 to come from it (although 50 decent-paying jobs in an area such as that create an economic-multiplier effect that few in leafy areas of cities seem to appreciate).

It's the boost they get 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.

And things may soon get a lot tougher for Ireland to attract these multinational projects, particularly if the EU presses ahead with tax-harmonisation proposals.

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 so slow at planning.

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