Electricity grid boss won’t say if Dublin wrote its response to inquiry probing Dublin interference

SONI managing director Jo Aston gave evidence to MLAsSONI managing director Jo Aston gave evidence to MLAs
SONI managing director Jo Aston gave evidence to MLAs
The head of the monopoly company which runs the electricity grid in Northern Ireland has refused to say whether its Irish Government-owned parent company wrote part of its response to a watchdog investigation into whether that company is interfering in its business.

Last year the Utility Regulator began an investigation into the ability of the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) to act without the involvement of its parent company, Eirgrid.

Yesterday SONI’s managing director, Jo Aston, gave evidence to the Assembly’s Committee for the Economy.

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Last year the News Letter revealed that she had written to staff to say it was important that SONI “speaks with one voice” in responding to the investigation, something some staff saw as an attempt to discourage them from speaking up about their concerns over independence.

DUP MLA Christopher Stalford asked: “How can we have a Northern Ireland energy policy if we don’t have an independent system operator for Northern Ireland that will look after Northern Ireland consumer interests?”

Ms Aston said: “You absolutely do have that in SONI...I’m very focussed and very clear that my responsibility is in delivering a Northern Ireland energy strategy”, adding that where it made sense to work on an all-island basis that should be done.

When asked if she had “entirely independently” written SONI’s submission to the Utility Regulator, or whether Eirgrid had been involved, she said: “I work with my colleagues – we work as a single electricity market....therefore, I will have liaised with my colleagues in Eirgrid in inputting that submission.

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“But I made that submission. You will see my name signed on that submission to the regulator.”

Mr Stalford pressed her: “If there’s an investigation taking place by the Utility Regulator around concerns about SONI’s independence, that Eirgrid then have a hand in writing the SONI submission to the Utility Regulator around that inquiry – you can see why there would be concerns there. While your name went on it...did Eirgrid write any part of your submission to the Utility Regulator?”

Ms Aston replied: “I think, Christopher, I’ve commented as far as I am going to comment. I think the regulator is carrying out its review, it’s ongoing, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment any further on that matter.”

Mr Stalford replied: “That’s not a ‘no’.”

When asked how many SONI managers report solely to her, she said: “I don’t think, Christopher, I’m here this morning to answer these types of questions...within the Eirgrid group we work in a very integrated way across all of our teams, and that is to the benefit of consumers on the island of Ireland...but I really don’t think this is an appropriate forum – this is meant to be focussed in relation to the development of the energy strategy for Northern Ireland.”

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Mr Stalford said that was why it was critical to understand the level of independence which SONI has from its parent company.

Highlighting that Eirgrid’s most recent accounts showed that it paid a dividend of Euro 4 million to the Irish exchequer, the South Belfast MLA asked what portion of that came from consumers in Northern Ireland.

Ms Aston said that SONI had never paid a dividend to Eirgrid, but had a “cross-charging policy” which saw money move between the two companies.

Fellow DUP MLA Gordon Dunne asked if there was a conflict of interest and Northern Ireland consumers were losing out because of the arrangements, something which Ms Aston said was not the case at all and that electricity markets across much of the world are getting larger, something which is in the interests of consumers.

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Pressed by Mr Dunne as to how she managed the conflict of interest, Ms Aston insisted that there was no such conflict to manage.

However, she accepted there were “perceptions” that SONI was not independent from Eirgrid.

Sinn Féin MLA John O’Dowd said he was “slightly surprised” at Mr Stalford’s concerns because he was “an avid free marketeer, a capitalist, and he supports the market driving the economy, so if those with the deepest pockets buy companies then that’s how that system works – if Christopher wants to join me on a crusade of nationalisation, I think we could have great progress”.

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