Apple fails to confirm Athenry data centre plans at Varadkar meeting

Taoiseach told Tim Cook of value and importance Government attaches to project

Doubts about Apple's commitment to building a data centre in Athenry have intensified after the company's chief executive failed to give Taoiseach Leo Varadkar a commitment about the project.

Mr Varadkar said the centre was not confirmed during a meeting with Tim Cook and senior executives at Apple's headquarters in California on Thursday.

“We didn’t get a start date, or a definite commitment,” he said, “but certainly from our point of view we really impressed on them very strongly how much the Government is behind the project, how we will do anything within our power to facilitate it and how the people of Galway, and Athenry in particular, really want it to happen.”

“Obviously we spoke about a number of things at the meeting, Athenry was certainly one of those. I very much impressed on him the fact that the Irish Government is very much behind the Athenry data centre project. I understand, of course, that the delays that occurred through planning and through the courts were not under Apple’s control,” he said, adding that people had demonstrated in Athenry in favour of the project. The project was particularly important from the Government’s point of view because it signalled investment west of the Shannon.


‘Not the norm’

Asked if there was now serious concern about the planning system given the delays that have best the Apple project, Mr Varadkar said it was important to note that this was not the norm.

"It's not the norm. There are lots of data centres all over Ireland and they get through the planning process with relative ease so I don't think this delay in Athenry because of the courts and because of the planning process is typical."

However, he said the Government has already decided to make some changes, including designating data centres as strategic infrastructure such as motorways and railways.

“[This] will allow them to skip a whole state of the planning step into the future and in addition to that we’re going to develop a very clear policy around data centres, where they should be located and how energy should be provided for them,” Mr Varadkar said.

On Wednesday, the project cleared its final planning hurdle, 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 to The Irish Times if the project would proceed. 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 stood.

EU court

Commenting about the European Commission’s decision to refer Ireland to the European Court of Justice for not collecting €13 billion in State aid it claims is due to Ireland, Mr Varadkar said the intention was to collect the money “as soon as possible” though he declined to give an exact timeline.

He added that Ireland could not do anything with the money it would receive “because other countries may have a claim on it and also the whole issue yet has to be heard and decided on at the European Court of Justice. It will be many years before we know where that money goes.”

Mr Varadkar was speaking at the headquarters of Twilio, a cloud-computing company which announced today that it is establishing its EMEA headquarters in Dublin following discussions with the IDA.

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent