Hong Kong property tycoon Ivan Ko told The Kerryman his team will visit the county following the COVID-19 pandemic after it emerged that Kerry was cited as a potential location for a brand-new city accommodating tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents.
The Times Ireland last weekend revealed that Mr Ko's Victoria Harbor Group - described as an international charter city investment company - opened contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) last December in relation to the extraordinary plans, and six potential Irish sites were discussed, including one in Kerry.
A map appears to identify a location between Tralee and Killarney as a potential site. Kerry County Council has said it has no knowledge of the proposal and has had no discussions with anyone or any agency about it.
It is unclear how Kerry came to be recognised as a potential site for the proposal, provisionally named 'Nextpolis'. Mr Ko confirmed that no meetings have taken place with Kerry figures, and the area circled in the map published in The Times would encompass far more than 50 square kilometres, which Mr Ko said would be the preferred size for such a city in Ireland.
The Times report, based on documents released under Freedom of Information, highlighted an exchange between DFA Asia Pacific Unit Director Tim Mawe and - it is believed - Mr Ko, during which the locations were discussed.
The Times reported that Mr Ko sent a map image over WhatsApp last February to Mr Mawe, with locations in Ireland circled, including one in Kerry. "Are these the regions or districts you have walked me through briefly in the call?", Mr Ko wrote, to which Mr Mawe replied, "Looks good".
"We have not locked down to regional level yet," Mr Ko told The Kerryman this week when asked for further detail. He claimed that Kerry was suggested to him as a potential location by Irish officials.
"We will for sure visit Kerry as one of the potential sites," Mr Ko confirmed. "Originally, without COVID-19, we planned to secure the first ICC [International Charter City] site within this year. Now with the travel restrictions still going on, we are still hopeful that it can be secured...in a country before the end of this year. Then we will start with master planning followed by construction".
Mr Ko claimed he is in contact with two other countries. While the Freedom of Information documents highlight discussions earlier this year about sourcing a 500-square-kilometre area for a new city in Ireland, Mr Ko now insists that his Irish strategy has changed "to fit into the Ireland situation".
"We target to start with smaller land, which may...ultimately reach 50sqkm and with a total population when the ICC is mature to have 100,000 people at most, half being Hong Kong immigrants," Mr Ko told this newspaper. "According to an opinion survey last October conducted by Asia Pacific Center of Chinese University of Hong Kong, 42 per cent of respondents said they will emigrate if they are given a chance...With the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, we believe more people [will want] to migrate."
In a statement issued to The Times - seen by The Kerryman - an advisor to Mr Ko said that while the possibility of autonomy for such a city was explored, this is no longer being considered as part of the Irish plan. "A new city is not feasible without the support of the host country," the statement added.
In an interview earlier this month, Mr Ko again emphasised he is not seeking to build a new nation, although the city would have its own charter. He also claimed that the project would be helpful to a host nation's economy and provide jobs across various industry sectors.
While he did appear to discuss potential sites with Mr Ko initially, Mr Mawe seems to have cooled towards the proposal, albeit one which was much larger in scale than what Mr Ko claims to now envisage.
Mr Mawe said an area of 500 square kilometres, as was then proposed, "is not held by government in this country, nor can it be obtained by law" The Times revealed.
"People in Ireland who fought long and hard to obtain freedom and have struggled through poverty to maintain that freedom are not inclined to sell part of our national territory to anyone," he also said.
Mr Ko told The Kerryman he is unperturbed by Mr Mawe's more recent comments.
"As said, his comment and guidance has led us to change our early strategies", he said.
"We are waiting to visit Ireland after the pandemic is over. All the actual execution plan will be dependent on the availability of site, conditions and policy support from both national and local government. And certainly, the reception of the local community," Mr Ko added.
In response to The Kerryman, a Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said: "Following an initial approach in December 2019, the Department had limited contact with the individuals involved to provide helpful and realistic guidance about Ireland. Since providing this guidance there has been no further action taken by the Department in this matter."