Disappointment as electricity interconnector plans cut off
Business leaders in North hold glimmer of hope cross-border project can be reignited
“The North-South interconnector is a vital piece of economic infrastructure that, once built, will unlock greater efficiency in the single electricity market,” said Angela McGowan, CBI director for Northern Ireland. Photograph: Colin Keegan/Collins
The decision to quash planning permission in Northern Ireland for the £200 million (€228 million) cross-border electricity interconnector is “unwelcome but not unexpected”, according to business leaders in the North, who continue to strongly back the project.
The Department for Infrastructure in the North requested that the High Court in Belfast quash planning permission for the interconnector because of a legal challenge which it said was not in the public interest to continue to defend.
The case was conceded at the High Court in Northern Ireland on Friday on the basis that the North-South Interconnector wrongly received the go-ahead in the absence of a minister.
In January last year the department announced it was approving the Northern Ireland section of the overhead scheme between Co Tyrone and Co Meath. However, a group formed under the name Safe Electricity A&T (Seat) issued proceedings to claim the move was unlawful.
Their lawyers contended that a development of such regional significance needed to be signed off by a minister. The challenge centred on the legal power of civil servants to take decisions without a functioning executive at Stormont.
In a separate case last year, the courts held that a permanent secretary did not have power to approve a £240 million waste incinerator at Mallusk on the outskirts of north Belfast.
Based on that legal interpretation, the department previously accepted Seat had established an arguable case at this stage on the constitutional point. In court on Friday its barrister confirmed that the application for judicial review was no longer being resisted.
A final order reflecting the outcome is expected to be made later this month. The interconnector project could now be plunged into uncertainty, although those behind it remain hopeful that new legislation will enable it to be rubber-stamped and advanced.
The overall initiative to join electricity grids in the two jurisdictions has already been approved in the Republic. It involves 85 miles of overhead cables and will lead to new pylons being built. Counsel for the department previously stressed the urgency surrounding the scheme, claiming “the lights could go out in 2021 if this project doesn’t proceed”.
Industry organisations on Friday urged the department to “urgently” redetermine the planning application for the interconnector.
Angela McGowan, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) director for Northern Ireland, said: “The North-South interconnector is a vital piece of economic infrastructure that, once built, will unlock greater efficiency in the single electricity market – lowering electricity bills and improving security of supply. Its construction is overwhelmingly in the public interest.”
The chief executive of the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce also said it was disappointing that the project was unable to proceed. Ann McGregor said: “The North-South interconnector is one of the most important infrastructure proposals in Northern Ireland at the moment and remains a key priority for our members and the wider businesses community.
“In fact, the delivery of the North-South interconnector has been amongst the top infrastructure priorities for our members since 2009. Businesses and employers need access to electricity in the most cost-efficient manner possible, and the interconnector is key to achieving this.”