Varadkar to meet Apple chief amid concerns over its commitment to €850m Athenry data centre

Taoiseach ‘keen to speak’ to tech giant about the project as it clears final planning hurdle

Locals in Athenry celebrate as the Commercial Court clears the way for tech giant Apple to develop a data centre in the town, the first phase of a planned €850million development. Video: Joe O'Shaughnessy

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is expected to meet Apple chief executive Tim Cook in California on Thursday amid concerns about Apple’s commitment to a €850 million data project in Athenry, Co Galway.

The project cleared its final planning hurdle on Wednesday, after the High Court rejected an application by objectors to appeal last month’s decision to allow the project to proceed.

But Apple failed to confirm if it would go ahead. In a statement immediately after the verdict, the company said it would make no further comment “at this time” when specifically asked if there was a chance the Athenry scheme may not go ahead. It also declined to comment when asked if its 2015 commitment to building the Athenry plant still stands.

Speaking following a meeting at Microsoft headquarters in Seattle, Mr Varadkar said the issue would be discussed during his meeting on Thursday.

“I am keen to talk to them about how their operations in Ireland might be consolidated and expanded into the future. Of course, part of that meeting will involve a discussion on the proposed data centre in Athenry. It is a project that the Government is 100 per cent behind. It is potentially the biggest investment in the west of Ireland, worth about €850 million,” he said.

“I will be keen to speak to Apple about their commitment to that project.”

‘Important company’

The Taoiseach described Apple as “a very important company” and noted that it employed more than 6,000 people in Ireland.

“Certainly when I met them last in Dublin, they told me that they planned to go ahead subject to legal challenges. It does appear now that those legal challenges are resolved although there is still a possibility of an appeal to the Supreme Court, so I imagine that may be an issue for them.”

On Wednesday morning, Mr Justice Paul McDermott rejected the application by local objectors Allan Daly and Sinead Fitzpatrick against an earlier judicial review finding that the data centre could go ahead.

Apple first announced it planned to build the centre in February 2015, before it was beset with delays caused by a handful of objectors – the scheme has widespread support in the town.

A similar Danish facility that was also announced by Apple in 2015 is nearing completion, while the company has since announced plans for a second Danish centre, while the Athenry scheme was bogged down.

Separately, there are also discussions ongoing involving the Government, State investment agency IDA Ireland and some of its client companies, such as Apple, over proposals from within Government to change planning laws to allow data centre applications be fast-tracked to avoid similar future delays.

It is understood that Apple is also weighing the potential future impact of this process on its plans for Ireland, before deciding whether or not to publicly commit to the Athenry scheme.

Planning fast-track

Sean Canney, an Independent TD for Galway East, welcomed the decision to clear the way for the scheme and said he believed the Government will press for changes to planning laws to fast-track data centres.

“The issue of timelines for data centre applications needs to be addressed. I will be making submissions to [Minister for Planning] Eoghan Murphy on this,” he said.

Local campaigners in support of the project welcomed the court decision, although they said they had not been in contact with Apple in recent times.

“It’s a great decision. We can see the end of the road now,” said Paul Keane, who helped set up the Athenry for Apple support campaign.

“We have had volunteers in the background from the legal profession and elsewhere help us to draft guidelines on how these planning applications should be dealt with in future. We hope to get these passed to Ministers.”

Another local supporter, Noel Doherty, said it was “a great day for Athenry”.

“This highlights the need for investment in the west of Ireland,” he said.

The objectors were not in court when the judge delivered his decision on Wednesday morning. The judge said he was not satisfied there was an appropriate point of law for the objectors to continue to seek to block the data centre.

Lawyers for Apple and An Bord Pleanála, which approved the scheme in 2016, told the court they were making no application for costs against the objectors.