“Top of the morning to you, Mr Chen.” It’s a greeting that could soon be heard with increasing frequency in Ireland.
The Chinese call the country ‘Aierlan’, a name that features the Chinese character for ‘love’. Some Irish may feel this appropriate, given the news of a major Chinese investment in their country.
Planning permission has now been granted for a trading hub to be built in Athlone, a pretty town on the banks of the Shannon river in County Westmeath.
Westmeath councillor Gabrielle McFadden said 1,200 jobs in the construction phase would be “absolutely fantastic” for Athlone, and that the hub would “open up the town to the rest of Europe”.
The Euro Chinese Trading Hub was conceived by two local developers, Aidan Kelly and Michael O’Sullivan, although the Financial Times has reported that they had help from the owner of their local Chinese restaurant (which makes it sound more like a plot from a Roddy Doyle novel).
It’s been in the works for a while.
“They came to see me at Christmas about two and a half years ago,” Mary O’Rourke, a former Irish enterprise minister, recalled to the FT. “I remember it well because they spread their plans for the project all over the floor and knocked over the Christmas tree.”
A first phase of the site will include two permanent exhibition halls each housing 270 stalls or shop-floor spaces, and a third hall planned to house temporary exhibitions. Nine smaller exhibition halls will be reserved for manufacturers with larger items such as wind turbines or electric cars.
John Tiernan, chief executive of Athlone Business Park, said their vision was to provide a hub where Chinese manufacturers could “demonstrate their wares”, rather like an Irish version of Yiwu (see page 10).
One potential advantage over Yiwu? The travel time: the hub’s backers say that Ireland is well-positioned to pull in buyers from across Europe, as well as the eastern seaboard of the US.
The plan is that buyers would then sign contracts in Athlone, but that all of the goods would be delivered from the manufacturers’ bases in China.
Up till now, no Chinese businesses or provincial governments have been lined up for the project, although Tiernan says that this is because his team have been reluctant to promote the project until it received planning permission.
Nor have the proposals been universally acclaimed closer to home. After initial griping, an area has been set aside for the promotion of Irish goods too.
And An Taisce, Ireland’s heritage body, appealed against the local council’s decision to approve the scheme, saying that it was “the first stage of a proposal of staggering size and scale”.
The heritage protection board said the plans mean a venue 14 times the combined size of two of Ireland’s biggest malls, at Liffey Valley and Blanchardstown, in Dublin.
It also complained about the “vague nature” of some of the conditions attached to the planning permission.
As currently conceived, the Chinese trading hub would have 445,000 square metres of exhibition space, as well as hotels, serviced apartments, two bus stations and a railway stop.
“What the public should be aware of is that any further phases that will be triggered will of course require to go before the planning authorities, if we do decide to go a step further,” Tiernan said.
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