Risk to Northern Ireland electricity grid as strike announced

Electricity pylons
Electricity pylons

Workers at a company responsible for a critical piece of Northern Ireland’s electricity infrastructure are to go on strike, a trade union has announced.

The Prospect union said its members at the Sytems Operators for Northern Ireland (SONI), whose job is to make sure electricity from power plants is distributed across the grid where it’s most needed, are to take part in a one-day strike on Monday.

Prospect, who represent the overwhelming majority of SONI staff, said “minimum emergency operations cover” will remain in place to avoid a “blackout situation” that could lead to “loss of life”.

But, a union representative has warned, the industrial action “will escalate further” without a breakthrough in negotiations.

Pay is at the heart of the industrial dispute – Prospect said its members haven’t had a pay increase since 2015.

The company, which is indirectly owned by the Irish Republic, said it “remains open and willing to engage with the union”.

The dispute has been ongoing for some time. Over 100 Prospect members were balloted last month – with 90% of respondents backing industrial action. The first action began yesterday, and involved control room workers in action short of a strike.

SONI say the escalating action puts the power system at “a greater level of risk”.

The union announced the strike action in a statement on Monday.

“There has been no breakthrough in negotiations, as SONI have failed to initiate contact with Prospect in any way,” the statement read.

“Unfortunately, SONI appear to be in complete denial.”

SONI has been part of the EirGrid group of companies since 2009 and EirGrid is, in turn, a state-enterprise owned by the Dublin government.

The union has always stressed that the “bottom line” for members is pay but has previously admitted concerns exist amongst the workforce about the “independence” of SONI .

But the company stressed that its licence to operate in Northern Ireland “contains conditions to ensure our independence”.

Angela Moffatt, the Prospect negotiations officer representing the workers, said: “SONI have refused to budge, despite a proposal from Prospect for an under inflation pay rise to be made, and arbitration over where we differ.

“SONI talk the talk of seeking negotiation and arbitration but then refuse it when offered.

“All of our members with the exception of minimum emergency operations cover will now initially strike for one day, but more could follow.

“We expect an impact on maintenance and operations and costs for third parties like NIE Networks too.

“We are not escalating to a blackout situation at this point. Our members will be there to deal with emergencies and ensure there’s no risk to life. We own our responsibility to the ordinary consumer and the general public, even if SONI are happy to risk that by refusing to end this dispute.”

She added: “SONI cannot expect to keep trading on that goodwill though. If they don’t try to work with us to find a solution, the industrial action will escalate further.”

Robin McCormick, general manager with SONI, said: “SONI is disappointed that Prospect members are taking such extreme action, which we believe is unnecessary and avoidable.

“SONI remains open and willing to engage with the union, as we have been doing over the past 12 months, and so we are calling on Prospect to withdraw its notice for action and to return to talks.”