The west of Ireland still waits for a ‘byte’ from the Apple

31 Jul 2017

Connemara National Park, Galway, Ireland. Image: Greg Fellmann/Shutterstock

As the Apple data centre in Athenry saga turns from fiasco to farce, is the west of Ireland being held back from achieving its potential? John Kennedy investigates.

In the past decade, if you drove west of the Shannon in Ireland, there was a sense of desolation. I’m not talking about the heartbreaking beauty of the landscape; the rugged and stunning savagery of the coastline. I’m talking about the closed businesses and boarded-up housing estates built by once wildly optimistic property developers.

For a person from the east of the country, the ravages of recession just felt a little more pronounced once you passed over the bridge at Athlone.

Future Human

I still cannot believe that it is now two years since Apple announced that it was investing €850m to build a data centre complex in Athenry, Galway. A sister complex in Denmark announced the same day is already built and there is talk of a follow-on investment.

Meanwhile, not a sod has been turned on the Galway site.

The two data centres, each measuring 166,000 sq m, were expected to begin operations in 2017 and include designs with additional benefits for their communities.

For the project in Athenry, Apple said it would recover land previously used for growing and harvesting trees, and restore native trees to Derrydonnell Forest. The project would also provide an outdoor education space for local schools, as well as a walking trail for the community.

The interesting thing about the data centre in Athenry – which would be 100pc powered by renewable energy – was that for all intents and purposes, it would be invisible. A car passing on the road outside would not even know it was there, its proponents claimed. It would be invisible, but we would know it was there.

Both data centres would power Apple’s online services including the iTunes Store, the App Store, iMessage, Maps and Siri for customers across Europe.

In many ways, it would be prestige investment – the largest capital investment the west of Ireland had seen since the hydroelectric stations at Ardnacrusha were built in the late 1920s by a pretty penniless but visionary Free State determined to bring electrification to the country.

For the local community, many were anticipating the economic impact that the data centre would bring to their area in terms of increased spending in shops and on amenities during the construction period and thereafter.

Data centres don’t really employ that many people once they are built.

But, for a region that knows it has so much to offer the world, the presence of the data centre was symbolic enough.

Bruised Apple

However, there has been a series of stops and starts.

Concerns over flooding as well as potential threats to local wildlife such as bats were heard by An Bord Pleanála before the green light was given in August 2016.

However, by November, three objectors – two locals and one with an address in Wicklow – received permission to seek a full judicial review of the Apple decision by An Bord Pleanála. One of those objectors, Allan Daly, an American environmental engineer, cited the strain on the local electric grid as well as the potential greenhouse gases that the data centre could produce as his reasons for objecting. An in-depth Vice article details his concerns.

Once the judicial review became news, 2,000 members of the local population marched in support of the data centre project. Apple begged for the process to be fast-tracked.

What has ensued is farcical.

On 23 June, the final verdict was due to be given in the Commercial Court. A shortage of judges meant the case was to be postponed by a week to 30 June. The case was delayed again until 27 July.

And then, on 27 July, we discovered that a ruling has now been listed for the next court term, which is scheduled to be given on 12 October.

As a small, democratic country that values fairness, it is right that people can voice their objections and have their day in court.

But this stopping and starting belies any pretence the country has to being a dynamic, digital nation.

To Apple’s credit, it hasn’t pulled the plug on the project – at least, not yet.

The rise of regional Ireland

Apple is a company that invested in Ireland during bleaker times in the early 1980s and helped get the digital ball rolling. In 2015, the company announced 1,000 additional jobs in Cork, bringing the workforce there to more than 6,000 people. Apple is a company that has given Ireland a lot and no doubt Irish executives there have given it their all, too.

As I said, the Apple data centre would be invisible to most passersby. It is an investment, however, that would be symbolic for the region and a statement of intent about what the West could become.

In recent weeks, we wrote about how Dublin has become a city that is betraying its young, giving way to landlord greed with exorbitant rent increases. Ongoing gentrification, ironically nudged on by tech giants offering workers free food and other perks, threatens to rob the city of its character.

Increasingly, a counterargument to the fast growth in Dublin is how regional Ireland is offering young families an opportunity to enjoy lower rents, a better quality of life and career opportunities.

We recently reported how Shopify, an e-commerce platform, was bringing 100 new remote working jobs to Galway on top of the 150 people already employed there. A year ago, we reported how another e-commerce firm, Wayfair, was increasing its headcount to 160 people.

Co-working facilities for start-ups are popping up in places such as Sligo and Roscommon.

Just last week, it emerged that the Ludgate Hub in Skibbereen in West Cork was going to benefit from the establishment of a satellite office for Ray Nolan’s e-commerce firm, XSellco.

The Ludgate Hub, established in 2016 and hinging on a 1Gbps broadband connection, has so far created 25 new jobs for West Cork and it even has a €500,000 Seed Capital Fund. It is a glaring example of what is possible in regional Ireland.

“We’ve long held the belief that connectivity holds the key for Ireland, allowing for a distributed workforce that can live locally and support local economies,” Nolan said last week. “This privately funded, community-led initiative means our newest staff members get to live in glorious West Cork rather than relocate to high-rent cities or face long commutes. It’s a win for for us, a win for them, and a win for the town of Skibbereen.”

The re-emergence of the west of Ireland, and regional Ireland in general, from the squalor of recession should be given every chance to succeed.

The Apple data centre would be symbolic for the ambitions of regional Ireland and would certainly put the West on the digital map, potentially leading to more investments.

The stop-start nature of the planning hearings, however, shows that all is not well in so-called dynamic, digital Ireland.

And so, the west still waits.

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