Sunday 18 August 2019

IDA chief 'understands' Apple anger over Athenry

Planning challenges and reviews led to loss of €850m centre as 'business context changed'

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Apple's decision to cancel the construction of a €850m data centre in Athenry is "understandable", the head of IDA Ireland has said.

Martin Shanahan, who was in the meeting where tech boss Tim Cook effectively pulled the plug on the project, described the move as "disappointing".

But he told the Sunday Independent that Tim Cook emphasised to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the company remains fully committed to its other investments in Ireland.

The iPhone manufacturer now owns 166,000 square metres of forest near the Atlantic coastline, the equivalent of 23 soccer pitches, for which it has no purpose.

And along with the loss of promised jobs, the local community in Athenry is to miss out on Apple-led initiatives such as an outdoor classroom for the local school.

Plans for the centre were first announced in February 2015 but Apple grew increasing frustrated over time as the process was held up by planning reviews and the court challenges.

During last Thursday's meeting at Apple HQ in Silicon Valley, Mr Varadkar urged executives to reconsider, as the Government would do whatever possible to facilitate the development.

However, Mr Cook indicated the company had waited long enough and needed to press ahead elsewhere. Nineteen countries had been scouted before Apple selected the Athenry site nearly three years ago after consultations with IDA Ireland.

Speaking in San Francisco, Mr Shanahan said: "The planning process has taken much longer than anyone would have expected. It's certainly much longer than the company would have expected.

"What Apple are saying now is that they are committed to continuing to look at Athenry but they haven't committed to proceeding immediately because obviously the business context has changed. That is understandable in the time that has elapsed."

However, he said aside from the data centre issue Mr Cook "expressed nothing but significant commitment to Ireland".

"I think really he was extraordinarily clear about how committed Apple is to Ireland overall and how pleased they are about their operations in Ireland." Mr Shanahan said.

Asked whether he was concerned the incident could have wider implications for Ireland's ability to attract foreign direct investment, the IDA chief executive said: "It's not a huge concern but it is disappointing that this particular investment hasn't gone as smoothly as we would have liked.''

Yesterday, the Taoiseach confirmed that data centres will in future be considered strategic infrastructure for planning purposes.

It means that companies will apply for permission directly to An Bord Pleanala, and will no longer be required to seek initial planning from the local authority. The move should speed up the planning process.

The IDA played a central role in Mr Varadkar's first visit to the United States as Taoiseach, including behind- the-scenes work on jobs announcements at Facebook and Twilio.

Mr Shanahan said the focus now is to target the "next wave" of technology firms as well as growing existing relationships with well-known companies like Google.

"I think some of the companies we've met this week, there's a lot of runway for them yet. Many of them have diversified and are looking at new products and services. I wouldn't doubt their ability to grow, and many of them are in acquisition mode as well," he said.

"The IDA's strategy for the past four years has been to target the emerging companies. Target the next wave. Companies that have built a reasonable base in the US or in Europe or Asia and are now ready to internationalise."

Sunday Independent

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