There have been mutterings about a massive Chinese investment into the Athlone area for a few months.  On Saturday the Irish Times carried a piece providing a little more detail about plans for a enormous trading hub on the outskirts of the gateway town.  The hub would act as a site where buyers from all over Europe can sample and order Chinese goods and meet sellers and company representatives without having to travel to and around China.  A kind of permenant Chinese trade fare/expo in Europe. The preliminary design statement details that it will be: “the greatest commercial and trade centre, tour centre, cultural centre, amusement centre and international conference centre in Europe”.  According to the Times, the plans include a convention centre in the style of a Chinese palace, two five-star hotels, apartment complexes, a railway station, two bus terminals, a school, a medical centre, a fire station, a six-hole golf course and a 180m tower topped with a rotating viewing gallery.

Shanghai on Shannon?

What I think is interesting about the piece is not the proposal to create a major new investment into the Athlone area by Chinese entrepreneurs, but the way in which it is being advanced.  As the Times says itself: “the project seems to be advancing stealthily.”  By stealthily it does not mean progressing through the usual enterprise investment channels with IDA, local development boards, etc, but using political networks to build political buy-in and backing at the highest levels.  The potential investors used a local restaurant owner to make contact with local TD Mary O’Rourke, who passed them on to her son, Aengus O’Rourke (president of the local chamber of commerce), who introduced them on to his cousin, Conor Lenihan, who lined up the Taoiseach and local TD and Minister in the DEHLG, Michael Finneran.  Interestingly, a suitable site seems to have been included in September’s local development plan, designating 302 hectaures in the Creggan area as a potential site for a ‘world-class enterprise, innovation and trading hub’.  And yet, anyone who has any contact with the group or is associated with the project were uncontactable or declined to comment.  Hmmmm.

I’ve nothing against the proposal at this stage – I barely know what it consists of given that there seems to be little information beyond a couple of newspaper articles – but it would be a huge step forward if any proposal were to proceed in a transparent way through the proper channels and succeed on its relative merits, rather than progressing along the path of political cronyism. Heaven knows we need investment.  We also need good governance and government.  The two are not incompatible.

Rob Kitchin