Has the train already left the station for the west’s digital dreams?

1 Nov 2016

Athenry train station. Image: Rihardzz/Shutterstock

Apple’s €850m data centre in Athenry – the biggest digital investment project west of the Shannon – is being held up in court. But what is really on trial is Ireland’s arcane legal and planning process, writes John Kennedy.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”– a phrase by Evelyn Beatrice Hall from her biography of Voltaire, a French Enlightenment writer famous for his wit and his attacks on the establishment, and a phrase often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire himself.

This quote came to mind as I read in The Irish Times at the weekend of the stoical mindset of Athenry natives who, initially overjoyed that a company as big as Apple would grace their community with a massive data centre powered entirely by renewable energy, were now accepting that the project may be in tatters. At present, they are just hoping for the best.

‘Ireland shouldn’t try to just be the best place in the world to do business, it should strive to be the most efficient and environmentally friendly place to do business’

The project, announced in February 2015 alongside a similar data centre in Denmark, would be a hub for all of Apple’s iCloud and iTunes activities, putting Athenry on the global digital map.

It would be the ultimate jewel in the crown for digital industries west of the Shannon.

The construction of the data centre would generate 300 new jobs in the community and the flow of senior Apple personnel to Athenry would bring much-needed business to the town.

Apple is planning to build up to eight data centres on a 500-acre wooded site (owned by state agency Coillte) outside Athenry, which would be invisible from any roadway.

It was in August, 18 months after the project was announced, that An Bord Pleanála gave it the green light.

It was initially resisted by 20 local objectors on the grounds of fears for local wildlife, flooding and other environmental issues. Even the impact on local bats came into it.

But now, three objectors – two local and one with an address in Wicklow – have received permission to seek a full judicial review of the Apple decision by An Bord Pleanála.

A High Court case will take place on 8 November – the same day that America gets to choose its next president – and the whole thing could be trotted out for a further 18 months.

By comparison, the Apple data centre in Denmark is already half built and will be fully operational by the time its sister in Athenry may turn its first sod.

The natives, like Voltaire, charitably respect the right of people to have an opinion. But I can sense their angst.

Low lie the dreams of Athenry

Athenry, to most Irish people, is a poignant place due to its eponymous role in a song belted out by Irish fans at football and rugby matches.

Athenry, as well as many western towns like it, was especially poignant following the economic crash of 2008, as white elephant property projects from housing developments to hotels and shopping centres swiftly became hollow facades.

Young people who would have bolstered the numbers of local football teams are still in Australia or Canada, realising that the lives they have there are still better, no matter what talk of a recovery being underway reaches their ears.

It is ironic to think that it was only eight years ago that we were grappling with oversupply of homes, and yet now cities like Dublin and Cork are blighted by housing shortages and homelessness.

Driving west on any wintry afternoon in the aftermath of the crash was a sombre affair, as I recalled shuttered shops on once-bustling market streets and boarded up housing developments. A wrong turn in Dingle one evening in 2010 took me past the mournful sight of an entire housing estate shrouded in darkness, as an Atlantic gale swept the area. Not a light was to be seen. It felt eerie, silent, ominous and sad.

When the news of the investment by Apple reached the people of Athenry in 2015, I can only guess at their reaction to the good news. A kind of deliverance.

It is understood that Athenry ticked all the boxes and met all the criteria in terms of abundant space, with privacy from prying eyes and connectivity to vital transatlantic fibre networks.

But what ultimately swung it was the existence of a hotel in the town, The Raheen Woods, which was built during the property boom and stubbornly clung on by just a wing and a prayer. Visiting Apple executives would require a decent hotel in the vicinity and that ticked the last box.

But now the chances of revitalising the local economy, creating local employment and adding yet another jewel to Ireland’s digital crown are endangered.

Because of the recent objections to the project, it now risks being cancelled.

Apple tries to fast-track legal proceedings

Apple is no slouch. It has asked the High Court to fast-track the legal challenge to avoid the 18-month delay, requesting that the case be moved to the commercial list of the High Court.

It is possible that this would reduce the time frame down to six months.

Like Voltaire supposedly said, nobody is denying anyone the right to an opinion or the right to protest. It is only right that those views are given a chance to be heard.

In fact, I doubt Apple would want to be associated with a process where the views and concerns of people were dismissed or trampled upon.

What is really on trial here, I suspect, is due process and the lengthy time frames given on issues like planning permission.

Galway is a veritable digital county with a heritage in technology that is just as vibrant as its capital city’s thriving arts scene.

Companies like Connaught Electronics were forerunners for the internet of things (IoT) revolution; making telematics and sensors and other key technologies for the automotives industry long before marketing executives decided to make IoT the next cloud computing.

Companies like Nortel (now Avaya) have been in Galway for over 40 years and some of my favourite start-ups in Ireland are based in and around Galway. The city and its hinterland also boast an amazing medtech manufacturing scene, led by former employees of Digital in Galway who discovered a dormant entrepreneurial zeal and genius when their company left the city in 1993.

The Apple project would be a signpost for more companies to locate there.

Not only that, but Apple has a target of being a 100pc renewable energy company and over 90pc of its offices and Apple Stores are powered by wind and solar energy. For example, entire blocks of buildings in Singapore have solar panels on their rooftops to gather power for Apple’s operations in the city-state.

It is not for us to judge those objectors; some of whom may have sincere and genuine concerns, while others may have vested business interests behind their reasons to object.

But what is really on trial here is Ireland’s ability to move fast and enable vital capital projects to flourish in a world that moves at breakneck speed.

It would be a shame for Ireland to put business interests ahead of ordinary people who object to something without giving them a fair hearing first.

But it would equally be a shame for the servers in Apple’s data centres in Viborg, Denmark to whir into action before a single sod of turf has been turned on the site in Athenry.

Ireland shouldn’t try to just be the best place in the world to do business, it should strive to be the most efficient and environmentally friendly place to do business.

And I can’t help but suspect an opportunity is slipping from our grasp.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years