Carthy accuses Minister Ryan of refusing to listen to communities on North South Interconnector
Cavan Monaghan Sinn Féin TD, Matt Carthy, has again clashed in the Dáil with Green Party leader and Environment Minister, Eamon Ryan, on the North South Interconnector.
In an exchange during Oral Questions on Tuesday evening, Deputy Carthy accused the Minister of refusing to listen to the communities living alongside the proposed Interconnector route. Carthy said that the attitude of both EirGrid and the Minister has led to delays and wasted public monies and that this will continue if they proceed on their current trajectory.
Deputy Carthy was supported by his party colleague and spokesperson on Environment, Climate & Communications, Darren O’Rourke who said that the route for this project to proceed was clear – the interconnector must be undergrounded.
The debate was instigated by a formal question submitted by Deputy Carthy who asked the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications if he has received a review of the North-South interconnector; when it will be published; and if he will commission a full independent assessment of the potential undergrounding of the project.
The exchange went as follows:
Deputy Matt Carthy: I again raise the issue of the North-South interconnector and ask the Minister whether he has received the review of the interconnector which I have been sceptical of, if he could outline when it will be published and, most importantly, whether he will commission a full independent assessment of the potential undergrounding of this project.
Minister Eamon Ryan: The new North-South interconnector, which will allow for the flow of 900 MW of electricity between Ireland and Northern Ireland, will be critical for improving the operation of the all-island integrated single electricity market, ISEM. It will also help to 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, it was deemed appropriate to carry out a further short review to assess if the overall finding from the 2018 report remained valid. Having requested tenders from a number of grid experts across Europe, two international experts were selected to carry out the study. Work is continuing on the report, which has taken longer than expected. It has not been a short process. I regret that but I understand it is to be finalised shortly. I have not seen it yet but I expect it in the next couple of weeks. Following receipt of the report it will be considered, with publication to follow in due course. At this point, I am not able to provide a publication date.
Matt Carthy: I raised this issue with the Minister on 20 September and 7 April last, on 4 November last year with the Minister of State, on 21 April with the Taoiseach, and on 10 March 2021 and on 22 September 2020 with the Minister directly.
Each time I have raised the issue with the Minister, he indicated his refusal to engage with local campaigners on it. Each time the Minister refused to accede to the demand of a full appraisal of the underground option of the interconnector despite the fact that a report the Minister cited earlier described that as a credible option.
The Minister was in government when EirGrid first announced its plans for this infrastructure. EirGrid then claimed it would take only a few years but, because of the pig-headed attitude of EirGrid and successive Ministers, the project instead ran into significant delays, unnecessary costs and the loss of any semblance of goodwill among the affected communities.
The biggest challenge is yet to come when EirGrid and its agents attempt to enter onto the lands of people who have publicly stated that they will prevent them.
My appeal is, rather than entering into further delays and more wastage of public moneys which will be the Minister’s legacy unless he learns from the lessons of the past decade, that the Minister engages with the communities and instigates the review that is being sought, which is a full independent appraisal of the underground option.
Eamon Ryan: I, more than anyone else, regret the delay. As a Member of this House in 2003, I remember the then joint Oireachtas committee on energy having a presentation from EirGrid, our transmission grid company, at which it said that we urgently need a North-South interconnector. For many years looking at international experience and reading several reports, the clear analysis presented was that an overground wire was the only way one could do it. One could do it, potentially, on a high-voltage direct current where one can ship power over long distances, let us say, from Belfast to Dublin, but that would then mean economic real disadvantage to counties either side of the Border. It would also undermine necessary greater energy co-operation, North and South.
I was the Minister at the time who introduced the single electricity market and saw EirGrid taking on the role of managing our transmission system in the North as well as in the South. I believe it has good engineers. I regret Sinn Féin’s position. I cannot understand not only this issue but other related issues where Sinn Féin seems to support a disintegration of our island on an energy system basis. I am scratching my head wondering why this would be in the interests of Sinn Féin.
Matt Carthy: The concept that public acceptance must be sought and earned by public bodies before they railroad their way through with an infrastructure project will be alien to the Minister.
Experience tells us when you try to do this, you encounter delay after delay and wasted money after wasted money. This is what we have experienced to date. The Minister is simply blind to this fact.
I want to see the North-South interconnector proceed. I do not know how many times we need to tell the Minister this before he stops with his disingenuous comment that has become the hallmark of this debate. If the Minister want to see the North-South interconnector proceed, he will have to engage with the local communities.
On whether the North-South interconnector can be undergrounded I ask the Minister not to take my word for it but take the word of the international commission he cited in his initial response. It described the undergrounding of the project as a credible option.
I do not know whether it is a pointless exercise but I will appeal again to the Minister to engage with those people who will be affected. Over the coming months, EirGrid will try to enter the lands of people who have told it that they will not let it in.
There will be further conflict that will inevitably lead to further delays. Is this what the Minister wants? Is this what he wants his legacy to be or will he now try to ensure we can see this project fulfilled in a way that garners the concept of public acceptance, which is the hallmark of similar projects happening throughout Europe and proceeding much quicker?
Deputy Darren O’Rourke: First, it is completely disingenuous for the Minister to suggest what he did. Many people are not familiar with what is happening with the regulator in the North and with the System Operator for Northern Ireland, SONI, and EirGrid. To suggest Sinn Féin is part of it is completely disingenuous and I ask the Minister to withdraw it. He knows it well in terms of the politics in the North.
Similarly with regard to the North-South interconnector, it does not take a genius to work out this is a project that has been delayed and delayed because of the approach taken by successive Governments and EirGrid. In this term and previous terms I, my predecessors and my party colleagues have consistently spelled out exactly the way forward.
Government after Government and EirGrid have maintained their position of intransigence. I for one know where we will end up on this and it does not involve delivering the North-South interconnector. I want to see the project delivered.
Eamon Ryan: As Deputy O’Rourke said, I was referring to the issue of the recent regulatory decisions regarding SONI and EirGrid and, in my mind, the very regrettable changes that are afoot. Although it is hard to know because we do not have an administration up North, from the conversations and discussions I have had, my very clear understanding is that the Sinn Féin position was clearly in support of the Northern regulatory position. I find this very strange. I really find it hard to understand how this helps an all-island approach. Be that as may, it is something we cannot have control over. It is a Northern regulatory decision. It does have an influence potentially on how the North-South interconnector is built and developed. I absolutely agree with Deputy Carthy that we need to consult and to listen. We need to be flexible and bring to people with us. Sometimes, having done that and having listened, we also need—–
Matt Carthy: It has not been done.
Eamon Ryan: —–to do what is important for the wider country, as well as the local community. I believe the North-South interconnector is vital for the economic development of the Border counties.
Matt Carthy: Then engage with the communities that will be affected by it.
Eamon Ryan: I also believe at a time when energy bills are very high that it is one of the most effective immediate projects to bring down the cost of electricity for everyone and to create economic jobs and other opportunities. This will not be easy. I want to wait for the final further report. We have a list of reports as long as my arm looking at this. We will look at the latest one. I have not seen it yet and I want to read it and see it before I make any further statements.
Matt Carthy: The Minister should commission the report that is actually being sought. Would he do that?