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Friday 19 January 2018

China trade hub investors were told outlandish state aid claims

Paul Melia and Edel Kennedy

POTENTIAL investors in an ambitious €1.2bn trading hub have been told a series of outlandish claims about government support for the project, the Irish Independent has learnt.

Documents prepared for Chinese investors say the Government has promised to sell houses, fast-track visa applications and provide "preferential policies" to investors in the Europe-China Trading Hub in Athlone.



It is also claimed there were plans to build an international airport near Athlone and that direct flights to China would be established once the hub was in operation.



However, the Government refused to confirm that any special arrangements were in place, despite a series of high-level meetings in 2009 and 2010 about the project.



Concerns



The claims raise serious concerns about how the project is being promoted to potential Chinese investors, who would consider Irish government support crucial.



The Irish Independent can also reveal the identities of the secretive Chinese businessmen behind the ambitious plan, which was first mooted in 2009.



They are Ken Chan (53), a Manchester-based businessman with property holdings in the UK, and Chunxiao Zhao (48), with an address in Beijing in China.



Last month, An Bord Pleanala granted planning permission for phase one of the hub on a 78-acre site just outside Athlone.



The backers want up to 700 Chinese companies to set up a stall or exhibition space in Co Westmeath to encourage buyers from Europe, North Africa, the eastern seaboard of the US and Middle East.



The company behind the project is now canvassing Chinese businesses to support the project, including some owned by the Chinese government. Each is expected to invest a minimum of €300,000.



But a series of claims made in a prospectus aimed at attracting Chinese companies suggest the Irish Government has taken a hands-on role in the project.



They include:



- A claim that the Government has signed a "series of related agreements" with the project backers in relation to "preferential policies" for companies and individuals who invest. These relate to visas, immigration rules and setting up businesses.



- The Irish Government has also proposed an "upfront investment plan" specifically for Chinese investors, the documents claim, which includes directly selling them houses.



- Existing rules state that foreign investors must have assets of €300,000 in Ireland. The investor documents say the Government has agreed that residential properties can be counted.



- It is also claimed there are plans to build substantial transport infrastructure, including the international airport near Athlone and a motorway.



But there is little evidence to back up many of these claims, with the Department of the Taoiseach saying it had no official involvement.



The Department of Transport said there was no plan to build an airport near Athlone, while a government spokesman said the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation had "no financial involvement" in the project. However, the IDA has offered a letter of support to the backers.



The plan was first mooted three years ago, and was suggested by the Chinese. The project team met the Irish ambassador in Beijing in 2009, and ministers in the last government, including former Taoiseach Brian Cowen, Tanaiste Mary Coughlan, Enterprise Minister Batt O'Keeffe and Housing Minister Michael Finneran, who is a local TD.



"I met them in Beijing when I was on the St Patrick's Day trip that time (2010)," Mr Finneran said. "To be quite honest, I don't know their names and don't have any notes of that meeting."



Funds



The Irish side are Athlone-based businessmen Aidan Kelly and Michael O'Sullivan, while former Roscommon county manager John Tiernan is the company's chief executive.



Mr Tiernan last night said the prospectus was not published by the team behind the Hub. However, it includes details and photographs of the Chinese and Irish shareholders.



"As the project is not seeking any government funds there has been no request seeking such government supports -- outside of public statements of welcome for such a venture and clarifications on any government policies that could potentially impinge on such an undertaking," he said.



Two more phases of the Athlone Hub are planned, but permission has yet to be sought.

Irish Independent

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