It’s so empty around the fields of Athenry

Data centre
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7 November 2016 | 0

Billy MacInnes“Low lie, the fields of Athenry
Where the Apple data centre should have stood,
But the planning took too long
And the Apple dream has gone
It’s so empty round the fields of Athenry.”

The above rewriting of Pete St John’s famous ballad was inspired by a report in the Irish Times  concerning a march by 2,000 people through Athenry in support of Apple’s plans to build a massive €850 million data centre just outside the town.

The event took place the day before Apple succeeded in fast tracking a judicial review sought by two local residents and a Wicklow landowner against the decision by An Bord Pleanala to give the go-ahead to the data centre plans in August this year. The case has now been listed for 21 March 2017. If Apple had failed, the process could have taken up to 18 months.

The march on 6 November featured a number of speeches in support of Apple. Local Fine Gael councillor Peter Feeney said most people in the town viewed the Apple data centre as “exactly what Athenry needed, a shot in the arm to give it a life – the biggest company in the world coming to a small town… Hope has been in poor supply in this country and this gave us hope. We want the hope that we can have our children around us, as many as we can.”

The Irish Times quoted Sean Kyne, Minister of State for Gaeltacht Affairs, who argued Ireland “would be a laughing stock if this was lost at this stage”.

While he could be accused of hyperbole, it says something about Ireland that a similar data centre in Denmark, announced by Apple at the same time as the Athenry project, is already well under construction.

Whatever the merits of the plans, it’s a pity they have become mired in delay because of planning objections in an area crying out for jobs and investment. The delay and uncertainty is bound to be felt even more keenly in places like Athenry when you consider how much of the overall investment in Ireland is skewed towards Dublin.

And it doesn’t aid the cause of places outside Dublin, areas where jobs and investment could go a much longer way than they do in the capital, if the process of making that investment a reality is slower and more laborious.

Judging by the numbers at the march, many people in Athenry are anxious for some way to be found for the data centre to go ahead as planned, despite the delays. For the moment, Apple seems to be intent on building the data centre there too. Whether the company will remain as resolute in its commitment to siting a data centre in Ireland if the judicial review goes against it is the big question.

By that stage, the centre in Viborg, Denmark, will be very close to completion, in line with Apple’s plans for both data centres to begin operations in 2017. Apple will have to decide whether it makes sense to move the proposed data centre to a more amenable country where work can begin quickly or go through the process again in Ireland. Let’s hope it’s not a case of Apple being once bitten, twice shy.

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