The civil service has appealed for volunteers to administer a system of fuel rationing across Northern Ireland, with 75 “strategically located” filling stations supplying “priority” vehicles if there is a major oil supply emergency.
In a memo to junior and mid-ranking officials today which has been seen by the News Letter, the Department for the Economy (DfE) set out how the crisis system would operate if it is triggered for the first time since the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike which toppled Stormont’s first power-sharing executive.
Although the appeal comes less than three months before Brexit, Stormont said the planning was “routine”.
Civil servants also stressed that the appeal for volunteers is not because such a crisis is thought to be imminent.
Other worst case scenario plans are being put in place to deal with any possibility of disruption from Brexit.
The documentation seen by the News Letter does not include the full contingency plan and it is not clear whether there is a proposal to shut every filling station with the exception of the 75 sites run by government or whether it is envisaged that supplies will have already run out at most other sites by that stage.
The plan is the responsibility of the same section of DfE which set up the disastrous ‘cash for ash’ scheme, although it is believed that all of those involved in that debacle are no longer in post.
Under its proposal, the government and the oil industry would work together to ensure that fuel continued to be supplied to “organisations and individuals providing key functions, such as hospitals, and healthcare workers”.
The individuals eligible for emergency fuel supplies “would be directed to a network of strategically located filling stations spread across NI and identified as a priority for supply from reduced stocks”. Forty one “general locations” for the emergency filling stations are set out and are listed below.
The scheme would be administered from DfE’s Netherleigh headquarters just outside the Stormont Estate and would involve two civil servants being placed at each of 75 filling stations.
They would be responsible for ensuring that fuel was only going to those with permits identifying them as being on the “priority” list and would also record the amount and type of fuel going out so that Stormont mandarins “can track demand patterns”.
Prospective volunteers are told that “civil servants will not be expected to police the scheme and would normally be positioned behind the sales counter with filling station employees”.
The documentation includes a paragraph in bold which states that there is no expectation of a looming oil crisis and says that the request for volunteers “does not suggest that any problems are imminent, or anticipated”.
A frequently asked questions document circulated to civil servants asks ‘what happens if customers become irate?’ The answer says that confrontation should be avoided and “if required, the PSNI can be contacted to assist in such circumstances”. There is no mention of Army involvement.
The only potential “negative impact” listed in the document is “negative press feedback against the DfE could be the result if the scheme is not implemented correctly”.
The appeal is separate to another request last month for volunteers to work as part of the civil service command, control and coordination structures” in a “worst case scenario” involving “sustained and widespread disruption” after Brexit.
A DfE spokesman said: “This process is not new and is a routine exercise to bring the resource back to the required capacity.”
Both the national and devolved governments maintain contingency plans for disasters – from pandemics to nuclear war – and the existence of a plan does not in itself mean that officials believe such a threat is imminent.
However it is rare for detailed elements of such plans to emerge publicly before the declassification of government files after 20 years.
Where emergency supplies will be held
The documents circulated within the Civil Service yesterday set out the ‘general location of designated filling station sites’. The list is reproduced as it appears in the documentation:
South Co Londonderry