A body owned by the Irish government has declined to say whether it wants to see Westminster use direct rule to urgently approve a vast cross-border electricity line which it says is crucial to keeping the lights on in Northern Ireland.
A source told the News Letter that the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) has been increasingly concerned at its inability to press ahead with the North-South Interconnector in the absence of a Stormont minister and has been lobbying the government to use Westminster to make the decision.
Although SONI is largely unknown among the general public, it is one of the most critical unseen parts of Northern Ireland’s infrastructure, ensuring that electricity from power stations, wind turbines and other sources reaches homes and businesses.
Since 2009, SONI has been owned by the Irish government’s state-owned electricity grid company Eirgrid and there have been a series of moves to integrate power networks on either side of the border.
SONI, along with business organisations and others, has been increasingly keen to see the construction of the North-South Interconnector, a line of high voltage pylons running from Tyrone through Armagh, Monaghan, Cavan and Meath.
However, the project has been vociferously opposed by local campaigners who have succeeded in stalling the project and have challenged it in the High Court.
In January – after almost a year without Stormont ministers – senior Stormont civil servant Peter May gave planning approval for the interconnector.
However, that decision has been effectively overturned by the recent Court of Appeal ruling that civil servants cannot take decisions normally taken by ministers.
A source told the News Letter that SONI has been lobbying for Westminster to step in and it raised the issue with Business Secretary Greg Clark when he visited SONI’s Belfast control centre on Monday.
The government has chosen to use Westminster to take a handful of devolved decisions – including an increase in household rates and moving money around the Stormont budget – but has been loth to accept that it should intervene widely, even where there is an urgent need for a decision.
The News Letter asked SONI whether it had lobbied the government to take the decision on a direct rule basis and to outline the consequences of the decision not being taken urgently.
The company initially replied with a statement from its spokeswoman, former BBC journalist Natasha Sayee, which stressed the importance of the “critical” project and said that it “remains urgently required to ensure long-term security of supply at the lowest possible cost to consumers. It is also needed to facilitate the increase of renewable generation onto the grid”.
Ms Sayee added: “In the absence of the Stormont Executive, we are continuing our engagement with key stakeholders locally and at Westminster to progress the interconnector without further delay, to allow its benefits to be realised as soon as possible.”
That appeared to hint at efforts to get the decision taken by direct rule because both energy and planning are devolved matters and without direct rule Westminster cannot take the decisions required to allow the pylons to be built.
When asked again if SONI wanted the decision to be taken by direct rule in the absence of Stormont, Ms Sayee declined to comment.
The Northern Ireland Office was asked if the government had been lobbied by SONI to progress the interconnector urgently and whether it could give certainty to those impacted by the project.
In response, a UK government spokesman would only say: “Energy policy is a devolved matter and decisions surrounding policies that are likely to have an impact on its electricity markets are led by the Northern Ireland Executive.
“In the absence of an Executive, the UK government is working closely with Northern Ireland Civil Service officials, the regulator and SONI to ensure a secure, reliable and resilient energy supply is maintained in Northern Ireland.”