Government keeps views quiet during application process


PLANS TO build a giant Europe China trading hub near Athlone may enjoy considerable public support locally, but the Government’s official view on the nascent project is far less clear.

Fianna Fáil members in the last government, right up to former taoiseach Brian Cowen, were heavily lobbied in relation to the project, but contact with the Fine Gael/Labour Coalition appears to be limited to briefings of departmental officials.

Mr Cowen met the Chinese backers of the project when he visited China in 2010 but, according to a Government spokesman, Taoiseach Enda Kenny had no meetings on the project when he visited the country last month.

When Minister for Jobs and Enterprise Richard Bruton was in Athlone recently, he declined to comment as the project was still before An Bord Pleanála.

Responding to inquiries earlier this week, his spokesman said neither the department nor any of its agencies have had any direct involvement in the project. They were aware of the plans and welcomed proposals that would bring in investment and jobs.

“Any issues, such as work permits, will, of course, be addressed as and when they arise, in line with the criteria set out in the relevant permit schemes under the governing legislation,” he said.

A similar line is taken by a Government spokesman, who declined to comment while the application was in the planning process. However, any project which brought jobs to Ireland was to be welcomed, he added.

Fianna Fáil councillor in Athlone Aengus O’Rourke said local people were still very positive about plans for the site. “Nearly every day someone stops me on the street to ask what is happening in relation to the project.”

Mr O’Rourke believes that if the board does give the project the go-ahead, it will be smaller than originally envisaged, at least at first. He believes significant numbers of jobs will be created for Irish people and that Irish immigration laws would not allow an inflow of lots of Chinese workers. He says the Chinese backers of local developers Aidan Kelly and Michael O’Sullivan remain largely unknown. They visit regularly but “they keep their cards very close to their chest”.