A proposed £200m cross-border electricity connector between Northern Ireland and the Republic has been given the go-ahead by planners.
Stormont’s Department of Infrastructure has approved the 21-mile northern section of the 400kV overhead electricity line running through parts of Armagh and Tyrone.
Approval has already been secured from planning authorities south of the border for the 63-mile section traversing Meath, Cavan and Monaghan.
The north-south interconnector – a joint project between the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) and EirGrid in the Republic – has been dogged by controversy from the outset.
Since planning permission was first sought eight years ago, there have been over 6000 letters of objection.
While advocates claim the new link between the electricity grids on both sides of the border is needed to ensure the security of Northern Ireland’s electricity supply, opponents insist it will have negative environmental and health impacts.
Many landowners whose properties lie on the proposed route have been vocal critics, claiming that their house values will plummet.
The decision by the Department of Infrastructure was taken by a senior civil servant in the continued absence of an elected minister due to the powersharing crisis at Stormont.
It comes on foot of a recommendation by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC), which last year held a public inquiry into the application.
The department said it is in the public interest for the project to go ahead and spoke of the “strategic importance” of the project for the region.
A departmental spokesman added: “In arriving at the final decision, the Department carefully considered and agreed with the independent report and recommendations of the PAC which states there is an urgent and compelling need for the proposed development.”
The project– which will take around three years to become operational – will involve pylons for over 80 miles of overhead cables and mean about 100 new pylons in Northern Ireland.
Planning permission for the longer southern section was approved in 2016.
A subsequent legal challenge was dismissed in Dublin High Court.
Robin McCormick, general manager of SONI - which is overseeing the northern half of the project – said working with landowners and the community remained a priority.
“The North South Interconnector is undoubtedly the most important infrastructure scheme on the island today and will deliver very real benefits to domestic and commercial consumers,” he said.
“It has received strong support from businesses and employers because of the positive impact it will have on the economy, and from consumer groups as it will help reduce the cost of electricity.
“While we recognise this project is to the benefit of everyone, we will continue to work to ensure that it is delivered at the least possible impact to the communities and landowners who are hosting it.”
A number of business representative groups in Northern Ireland, including Retail NI, the CBI and the Institute of Directors, welcomed the planning decision.
They argue the new interconnector will reduce costs and ensure NI has the supply to meet demand in years to come.
But the move is sure to outrage opponents who had campaigned for cables to be put underground, citing health and environmental reasons.
Sinn Fein have been vocal opponents of the scheme and previously called for the project to be routed underground, warning that any other option would face fierce opposition from rural communities.
In the wake of yesterday’s development, the party’s environment, energy and climate change spokesperson, Cathal Boylan MLA said he will be requesting a meeting with the department to discuss the decision.
“Sinn Fein recognise that the interconnector has an important role in the provision of the all-Ireland electricity and utilities,” he added.
“It is vitally important that the views and needs of residents in the surrounding areas are fully taken into account at all points in this project.”
Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy took to Twitter to criticise the decision, stating: “EirGrid and government have yet to explain how they intend to construct interconnector with zero public support among affected communities or landowners.
“Millions in public funds have been wasted while underground option could have been completed by now.”