DUBLIN: “An Apple a day keeps the bank man away stop objecting. So read the handwritten sign in Athenry, the tiny village close to Ireland’s Atlantic coast chosen by Apple for a vast US$1 billion (S$1.43 billion) data facility. The message was for three people contesting the potential environmental impact and economic benefits from locals worried the company might scrap the project because of more than a year of delays. Meanwhile, the forestry site remains untouched before a judge hears another round of arguments in March.
“This doesn’t just affect Athenry, it affects Ireland as well,” said Mr Paul Keane, 39, whose family has lived in the area for generations. “If Apple is turned away, what does it say about Ireland? It’s right that we have a fair and open system, but it can’t be dragged out.”
What would be one of the most high-profile European investments for Apple is an even bigger deal for Ireland in what has turned out to be a torrid year.
Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has threatened to upend arrangements with one of its largest trading partners, while Mr Donald Trump’s election win might undermine Ireland’s status as a haven for American firms in Europe. That was already in question after the EU ordered Apple to pay €13 billion (S$19.6 billion) relating to its Irish tax arrangements. Both the company and the government are appealing.
For some, Athenry illustrates a deeper issue: The difficulty of executing large infrastructure developments in Ireland compared with other countries regardless of how attractive the tax regime might be. Apple has already broken ground on a similar project in Denmark that chief executive officer Tim Cook announced simultaneously more than 18 months ago.
At that point, Mr Cook expected the Irish data centre to start operations next year. Now, it is unlikely the project will be completed before March 2019 at the earliest based on the timeline the company laid out at planning hearings. When asked about the delays, Apple pointed to Mr Cook’s comment in September following the EU tax decision that the company remains “committed to Ireland”.
The data centre in the Derrydonnell forest is due to cover 166,000 sqm, the equivalent of about 23 football fields on completion. When Mr Cook announced his plan, it was welcomed in a region that had become a byword for economic gloom, immortalised in a folk ballad in the mid-19th century.
Quickly, the project became bogged down in planning objections. Last week, a Dublin court agreed to fast-track a second legal challenge to the planning approval, though that still means the case will not be heard for another four months. While the court probably will not block the centre altogether, it could send the project back into the planning process if it finds flaws in the earlier procedure.