Carthy accuses Minister Ryan of failing to engage on North South Interconnector
Cavan Monaghan Sinn Féin TD, Matt Carthy, has accused the Environment Minister, Eamon Ryan, of refusing to engage with communities regarding the North South Interconnector.
Deputy Carthy raised the issue of the Interconnector in oral questions to the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications in the Dáil last week. He asked Minister Ryan when the so-called review into the Interconnector would be finalised, noting that he had no confidence that the terms of reference would allow for the “type of assessment that is required”.
The Sinn Féin representative said that the refusal of EirGrid and government representatives to listen to local communities has resulted in a delay in the delivery of the project. Had the project been undergrounded, he said, it is likely that the Interconnector would be completed by now.
Deputy Carthy’s Sinn Féin colleague and spokesperson on the Environment, Darren O’Rourke, intervened to accuse EirGrid’s approach as ‘pig-headedness’ and saying that ‘we should never ended up here’. Interestingly, a government representative, Fine Gael’s Alan Dillion relayed a similar experience in his own constituency whereby experts contended that an overhead powerline should be developed. Eventually, he said, “It went underground and not a peep out of the community has occurred since, which is probably the most important message I have for this debate.”
The discussion went as follows:
Deputy Matt Carthy: My question relates to the review into the north-south interconnector.
When will the review be completed and when will the report be provided and published? That is not to say that I have any confidence that the review is going to deliver the type of assessment that is required, because the terms of reference have been so narrow. However, I would like an update from the Minister in respect of the interconnector project more broadly.
Minister Eamon Ryan: The North-South interconnector is critical to improving the efficient operation of the all-island integrated single electricity market and increasing security of electricity supply in Ireland and Northern Ireland. It will also facilitate the achievement of the goal of generating up to 80% of our electricity from renewable sources by 2030. A resilient and well-connected energy infrastructure is vital for Ireland’s economic well-being and the ability to respond to the future needs of energy consumers.
The option of undergrounding the North-South interconnector has been comprehensively assessed on several occasions. Most recently, the key finding from the international expert commission’s report of October 2018 was that an overhead line remains the most appropriate option for this critical electricity infrastructure. Notwithstanding this, I decided to commission a further short review to assess if the overall finding from the 2018 report remains valid. Formal procurement of international experts in electricity grid infrastructure was completed last September. The international experts are continuing their work on the report, which has taken longer than expected, but I hope to receive it shortly.
I am interested to have a discussion. I said earlier that we always look at all options and discuss all energy matters. I would be very interested to hear what Sinn Féin sees, both North and South, as the timelines, the urgency and the preferred models. I have a real fear, across a whole variety of different areas, that we might lose what was seen as one of the significant developments of the last two decades, which was an all-island energy approach and a single electricity market. I fear that if we do not quickly build the scale of interconnection that we need, we will not see industrial development in the North and we will not see economic opportunities, particularly in those Border counties that are most in need and would most benefit from an integrated, synchronised transmission system which can deliver power locally to the people and to the industries that employ people in those areas. This is a critical economic issue, north and south of the Border.
Matt Carthy: For the avoidance of any doubt, I want to see the development of the North-South interconnector but I want it to happen in a way that has public acceptance.
Here is the irony of the situation: had the Minister listened to the communities and to the expert advice the last time he was in government, I believe the North-South interconnector would be completed by now. Instead, we have had a decade of wasted opportunity because that principle of public acceptance that is so crucial was not heeded. In Belgium, for example, the ALEGrO project is happening underground precisely because of that principle of public acceptance being heeded.
The Minister mentioned in response to an earlier question that EirGrid has learned from previous mistakes. I believe it has learned from its experiences regarding the North-South interconnector but it has learned everywhere except on the route of the North-South interconnector.
EirGrid has decided to bull-headedly pursue a strategy that is leading it directly into conflict with local communities. What I am asking the Minister is whether he is prioritising the completion of this project or prioritising adherence to the stated objectives of EirGird. If he prioritises the former, what he will actually do is commission a real analysis of how we deliver this project in a way in which communities, society, businesses and this House can be unanimous in seeing the project delivered.
Eamon Ryan: It is almost 18 years since we started looking at this. I was a member of the relevant joint committee at the time, and we met with EirGrid and started looking at all of these options. If, as the Deputy says, his preferred option is underground DC cable connectivity, it seems to me that one of the aspects, one of the key truths around that, is that it would see no development in Armagh, Tyrone, Cavan, Monaghan and other Border areas. It would not actually be part of an electricity grid system which could then be used for industrial development and for getting a balanced, strong network. There is always the underlying question of what this connection is for. To my mind, it is a core spine of our key electricity system. I understand the issue of listening to the public, getting environmental planning consent and trying to bring everyone with us, but, in the end, politics sometimes comes down to hard decisions. Do we want to see economic development of the Border region or would it be fair to see it just as a transfer zone between Dublin and Belfast, where all the economic activity takes place?
Matt Carthy: I would suggest, in the first instance, that the Minister does not have the audacity to talk about economic development in the Border region considering his actions in regard to the N2 in an area where we have no public transport.
This is not just about what Sinn Féin says. The independent review that the Minister has cited described undergrounding the North-South interconnector as a credible option. It made other determinations on other evaluations as to whether or not the process should be put overhead or underground.
Here is the problem: we are now entering into a situation where EirGrid is going to be in direct confrontation with landowners and local communities and, in my view, that is going to lead to significant further delays. The Minister recalled that it is 18 years, almost two decades, since this project was first mooted.
EirGrid has taken a particularly pig-headed approach, as I said, but Deputy Ryan is the Minister. He is the person who can actually carry out a full appraisal as to whether or not an underground option is feasible. In my view, it absolutely is. If the Minister had in a previous position undertaken that work, as I said, we would be in a much better position today and would perhaps even have seen delivery of this integral piece of infrastructure.
Deputy Darren O’Rourke (SF): I want to come in on that point. We should never have ended up here, and that is my firm opinion. A central tenet of EirGrid’s current plan is community engagement and the Minister points towards learning the lessons of the past. We can see it in Grid West, on which there was huge confrontation and resistance, and that is going underground for the Connacht project. This is a matter of procedural justice and EirGrid is just being belligerently pigheaded in this regard. The most recent review is the latest example of it.
Deputy Alan Farrell (FG): My contribution has nothing to do with the constituency politics or even the party politics of this. I can only talk about my own experience with the connection that came through Rush back in 2010. I can tell the House that political careers were created on it and then, on the back of the decision, political careers ended at the next local elections because people got it wrong. What troubles me about this discussion, and I remember reading up on it a number of years ago, is that the sector will determine what is the most appropriate means of getting the energy from A to B but we have constant bickering at a local level, with people telling others “This is the way it should be”. In Rush in north County Dublin, everybody wanted it overground and, as I said, careers were created on the back of it. It went underground and not a peep out of the community has occurred since, which is probably the most important message I have for this debate.
Eamon Ryan: We need to get this right. We need to get it right in energy terms and we need to get it right in economic terms. I want to flag my real concern that, because we have not been able to get agreement, there is real potential for a fissure and it will be the North of Ireland which will suffer and the Border counties. That is not what we want to see. In response to Deputy Carthy, I have every interest in seeing balanced regional development and seeing counties Monaghan and Cavan and every county in the North survive. I was very proud and pleased in my previous existence as energy Minister to be able to help to set up the all-island electricity market. I believe we will not effectively meet our climate targets except if we work on an all-island basis. We are at real risk of losing that. We are at real risk of not seeing economic development in that region because—–
Matt Carthy: Because of the Minister’s actions.
Eamon Ryan: As I said, the Deputy may be in a position some day where those Government decisions have to be taken. I do not think that in those circumstances he would see the civil servants or the public officials as pig-headed. I think they are looking to deliver the best projects for the public good.
Matt Carthy: It has been held up for 20 years.
Eamon Ryan: My fear is that that may not be possible because we cannot get political agreement on doing anything. That is the real issue that we have to be concerned with. It is the politics of this that we have to get right, as well as the energy analysis.
Matt Carthy: The Minister will not engage.