Seanad debates

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Commencement Matters

North-South Interconnector

10:30 am

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, to the House and thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to be here. It is much appreciated.

I would like to discuss the North-South interconnector. It goes without saying that An Bord Pleanála's decision in 2016 regarding the North-South interconnector was met with a tsunami of disappointment, anger and frustration by the people affected. If EirGrid thought that was the end of the matter and people would take this decision lying down, it was very much mistaken. Two years on, the determination of the people affected is as strong as it has ever been. I have attended a number of meetings throughout the Cavan-Monaghan area and have witnessed at first hand that resolve.

Those affected received a shot in the arm by recent court decisions on both sides of the Border, one in Northern Ireland and a second in the Supreme Court. The High Court in Northern Ireland ruled that planning permission granted for a £240 million waste incinerator had been unlawfully authorised. Planning permission for the facility had been approved by a civil servant in the Department for Infrastructure in 2017. This landmark ruling would have a wide-ranging effect on the North-South Interconnector as it too was signed off on by a civil servant and not a Government Minister. At this point, I am sure the Minister will agree that all of us would like to the institutions in Northern Ireland back up and running for the benefit of all. I appeal to Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party to lead those who elected them to lead. The other shot in the arm was the Supreme Court's decision in favour of a Meath lady by the name of Maura Sheehy, a landowner affected by the proposed line. The court agreed to hear the case put forward by the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign. I understand the case is due to be heard at the end of this month.

In 2017, the Minister signed off on a procurement process for the installation of 409 pylons both North and South of the Border. At the time, we felt the Minister's decision was probably premature, to put it mildly, but I recall that he stated in his defence that it could be rescinded at any time. Given the decision by the courts, the fact that planning permission no longer exists for the facility in Northern Ireland and the Supreme Court case on the proposal in the South, the time is now ripe for the Minister to rescind his decision and ask EirGrid to withdraw from the tender process for these pylons. It would be a sensible thing to do and a good gesture on the Minister's part.

As the Minister is aware, the residents along the route, including in counties Monaghan and Cavan, remain resolutely opposed to the proposal. Both Houses of the Oireachtas have passed motions which seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Coupled with everything else that has happened over the years, this has only served to strengthen the will of the people that if this project is to go ahead, it must be undergrounded. Here we are ten years down the road and much has happened and many changes have occurred in that period. Technology moves on. I recall that when this project was introduced, we were told it would be 30 times more expensive to underground than to overground it. Most people on all sides now agree that undergrounding would not cost much more than overgrounding. At the time, EirGrid told us that from an engineering perspective, it was not possible to underground the interconnector. By its own admission, a few years on, the company now says it is possible to underground it. We have seen examples of projects similar to this in Belgium and Germany that have been undergrounded.

It is ten years on and things have changed but the one thing that has not changed and is as strong today as at any time in the past is the will of the people to ensure this project does not go ahead. From meetings I have attended and people I have spoken to, I assure the Minister that as far as the people and landowners along the route are concerned, not one single pylon will ever see the light of day. That is the message I am getting loud and clear and it is the message I would like to give to the Minister.

I congratulate the action groups in Monaghan, Meath and Cavan for their continued work. I hail the resolve of the people who are as determined today as they have ever been. I ask the Minister to instruct EirGrid to withdraw from the tender process to see where this is going because we are in a legal limbo at the moment and God knows how long it will be before we are out of it. Question marks hang over the independent report that was promised. We seek the report's publication.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I thank Senator Gallagher for raising this issue. The North-South interconnector is vital infrastructure in delivering the objectives of Ireland's energy policy, namely, ensuring competitiveness and security of supply. It will also ensure a safe and sustainable source of energy for the jurisdictions of the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The interconnector, as proposed as an overhead line, was granted planning permission in Ireland in December 2016.Following a planning process in Northern Ireland, the section of the project in that jurisdiction was also granted planning permission in January 2018. The construction of the project and all related procurement activities are operational matters for EirGrid and ESB Networks in respect of which I have no function. The 2012 Government policy statement on the strategic importance of transmission and other energy infrastructure states that "Government does not seek to direct EirGrid and ESB Networks or other energy infrastructure developers to particular sites or routes or technologies". However, I respect fully that this project gives rise to concerns for a number of people, particularly those living in close proximity to the proposed project. In fact, I was the first Minister in a decade to meet with the groups and listen directly to their concerns.

Following the planning decision in Ireland, two motions calling for an updated independent study into the North-South interconnector were passed by Dáil Éireann and this House in early 2017. I subsequently commissioned two studies designed to address the main points of the motions as well as key concerns expressed by those opposed to the development of an overhead line. Some impacts such as environmental and health concerns will not be assessed since the statutory planning process is the appropriate method by which such impacts are assessed and evaluated. The consultants undertaking the two studies have completed their respective reports and they were submitted to my Department earlier this year. They have now been fully considered by my Department and submitted to me. It is my intention that the reports will be brought to Government as soon as possible and made publicly available on my Department's website.

There are a number of ongoing legal issues in Northern Ireland which are ultimately matters for the authorities there. The judgment of the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland on 6 July relates to a different project, although it has been acknowledged that it could have wider implications for decision-making in Northern Ireland, not just in relation to infrastructure but to the operation of government and decision-making generally. It is to be expected that the judgment will be studied over the coming weeks by authorities on both sides of the Border as to any implications for the North-South interconnector project.

To answer Senator Gallagher's question, I made it clear when I signed off on the procurement process that this could be paused or stopped at various stages in the process. I gave that commitment to the Dáil, definitely, and I may have given it here as well. I stand over that. It was the only basis on which I allowed the process to commence. I am monitoring the situation on an ongoing basis.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for the response. There is a certain element of frustration in relation to the non-publication of the reports. I wonder if the Minister has an actual date for publication or whether he can provide a timeframe within which we can expect publication to occur. On the tendering process, the ordinary man or woman in the street will be of the view that if one is undertaking a major infrastructure project such as the one under discussion, one would not send out a tender document looking for people to price the construction of it until one was sure one had planning permission. That is how one would approach a shopping centre project, for example. This is because, with the passage of time, material prices may go up or down and one cannot be sure one is getting value for money. With respect, the Minister is a sensible individual and the sensible thing to do here is withdraw the tender process until we see what the road ahead looks like. At the moment, we cannot say how long that road will be or how long we will be in abeyance on both sides of the Border from a legal perspective.

Photo of Denis NaughtenDenis Naughten (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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This tender process is not just for the construction or potential construction of the route. As such, one cannot compare it to a shopping centre. To go ahead with the development of a shopping centre, one needs to know where the doors of each unit and the exits will be and what the overall design is. This process involves the design of transmission masts as well as the detailed design work. This is in order to meet the set timelines. As the Senator knows, there is a huge issue with electricity supply in Northern Ireland. In fairness, it is on both sides of the Border. All parties involved accept and acknowledge that there will be a severe shortage of electricity post the early 2020s in Northern Ireland which is an issue that must be addressed from an economic development point of view. There are many other aspects to it. The courts process in Ireland and Northern Ireland is not a matter in which I can get involved except to note that there are issues here and in the other jurisdiction which we are monitoring closely. I am constantly engaged through my officials in relation to various aspects of this.