Has Ireland rocked the Apple cart for future data centre investments?

14 Sep 2017

Apple logo. Image: 360b/Shutterstock

Flagship project for the west of Ireland is jeopardised as Apple suggests it may nip this one in the bud.

Ireland, it seems, is very, very close to scoring an own goal when it comes to landing multimillion-euro data centre investments.

The country’s plodding planning process and musty legal apparatus have managed to steal defeat from the jaws of victory as Apple, one of the world’s biggest tech giants, reconsiders its plans for a state-of-the-art data centre in Ireland’s west.

Two years ago, Apple announced its plans to build an €850m data centre in Athenry. A sister data centre was also announced for Denmark.

At its peak, the investment in Galway was estimated to be worth more than €1bn and would put Ireland on the global digital map as well as encouraging more digital investments and data centres to go west.

Two years on, the Danish data centre is almost complete, while not one sod has been turned on the Athenry site.

Stymied by planning and legal holdups, iPhone maker Apple has signalled that the Athenry data centre project has been jeopardised, according to media reports. It is understood that Apple scouted more than 19 countries before choosing Ireland.

The data centres in Athenry and Denmark’s Jutland are to be host to popular Apple services such as iCloud, Apple Music, Siri and various e-commerce activities. The Athenry base is proposed to be powered by 100pc renewable energy and would be 166,000 sq m in size, but hidden from the public eye by forest.

An Bord Pleanála gave the project the go-ahead in August 2016. However, by November last year, three objectors – local residents Sinéad Fitzpatrick and Allan Daly, and Wicklow landowner Brian McDonagh – received permission to seek a full judicial review of the Apple decision by An Bord Pleanála. This prompted 2,000 local people from Athenry to march in support of the data centre.

For its part, Apple urged the process be fast-tracked. But it appears that the legal apparatus plods to its own ponderous beat and the earliest hearing was set for 23 June.

Due to a shortage of judges, the hearing had to be rescheduled for 30 June. More delays ensued. Then, it emerged on 27 July that a ruling has now been listed for the next court term, with a hearing scheduled to be given on 12 October.

Is there something rotten at the core of Europe’s digital capital?

Ireland likes to model itself as the digital capital of Europe and indeed, many of the world’s biggest tech companies – from Apple to Google, Facebook and Microsoft – have international headquarters in the country. The sector employs thousands of people and is the lynchpin for unlocking growth for ordinary businesses and start-up opportunities for ordinary citizens.

That digital crown, however, is being tarnished by the ongoing, out-of-control accommodation crisis that is hurting families and young people, and word is getting out that Ireland may no longer be the go-to place if you are young and digitally talented.

The Athenry data centre project is another sad footnote in an enduring narrative.

Dublin has more than 30 data centres belonging to players such as Vodafone, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Digital Realty and Amazon, to name a few, and this infrastructure makes it one of the world’s densest concentration of data centres, the engine rooms of the digital boom.

Increasingly, as renewable energy becomes more widely available, data centre operators are looking beyond the confines of Dublin to regions such as Connacht and Munster. Key factors – such as access to infrastructure like renewable energy as well as the future of the North-South interconnector – could be pivotal in deciding if Ireland could land thousands of jobs in the ongoing digital gold rush.

This week, Apple outlined its vision for the future of the iPhone, revealing three new devices: the iPhone 8, the iPhone 8 Plus and the flagship iPhone X. At the launch, CEO Tim Cook highlighted Apple’s green credentials.

Building on the vision of Apple co-founder, the late Steve Jobs, to build a collaborative, creative space in the heart of Silicon Valley, Apple converted a “sea of asphalt” into a space with more than 9,000 trees for Apple Park, which will also be 100pc powered by renewable energy.

Companies such as Apple – which has been in Ireland since 1980 and employs 5,000 people with another 1,000 on the way – do not do things by halves.

The Athenry data centre was a powerful statement of belief in Ireland and could yet open the door for a new digital boom in the west of Ireland.

It is unbelievable that we have allowed such an opportunity to be jeopardised.

Apple logo. Image: 360b/Shutterstock

Updated, 2.32pm, 14 September 2017: This article was updated to amend an incorrect reference to the size of the proposed Athenry site.

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