Northern Ireland’s Irish government-owned electricity grid operator has been accused of attempting to gag its staff about speaking out about their concerns over its independence from Dublin.
Two weeks ago the Utility Regulator, which oversees the actions of the System Operator for Northern Ireland (SONI) because it is a monopoly, announced that it was launching an investigation into the company’s ability to act without the involvement of its parent company, Eirgrid.
Ten years ago, SONI was sold to Eirgrid, the Irish state-owned company which runs the grid south of the border, while Arlene Foster was Stormont’s energy minister.
But recently there have been increasing internal complaints about the level to which SONI — which under its licence is required to be independent — has been integrated with Eirgrid to the extent that some staff believe it is really being run from Dublin.
Those internal concerns were among the issues raised by staff who came to the brink of strike action in April, only for the company to make a pay offer which they accepted.
In launching its inquiry into the firm, the regulator specifically said it was interested in hearing from SONI staff.
However, in an email to staff the day after the regulator’s call for evidence, SONI’s managing director, Jo Aston, delivered a message which some staff said they had interpreted as a warning not to respond to the regulator’s request.
Ms Aston’s email, which has been obtained by the News Letter, said: “This is an important consultation for SONI and EirGrid Group. In this regard, the Board of EirGrid will be reviewing and considering this call for evidence in detail, assisted by the Executive Team.
“It is also important that the organisation speaks with one voice and I would ask that all staff acknowledge this.”
Ms Aston was a senior figure at the regulator until five months ago when she was hired by SONI.
Referring to Ms Aston’s comment to staff, DUP MLA Paul Frew asked: What does this even mean?” He added that SONI had declined to tell him whether it was “actively encouraging their staff to engage” with the regulator.
When Ms Aston was asked why she had made that comment to staff and whether she accepted that they should be free to engage with the regulator as they see fit, she said in a statement: “We note that this is an open consultation and that anyone who wishes to respond in a private capacity, is free to do so.
“Meanwhile, our priority is to continue to maintain a secure supply of electricity to homes and businesses across Northern Ireland at the least possible cost to consumers.”
The TUV leader, Jim Allister, a long-standing critic of Eirgrid’s ownership of the strategically significant utility, said that for years SONI had “sought to stifle internal objection to the fact that its independence has been surrendered to Eirgrid” and “it is typical of the Dublin domination that there is issued from Dublin an edict seeking to gag SONI staff from daring to speak out”.
l Morning View, page 10